By Taiwo Oluwadare
Sometime in 2014, my two-year-old daughter suddenly started showing signs of a terrible itch on her private part; she could not stop scratching it. My wife and I tried to stop her without success and the situation worried me a lot. Then elders around us came up with what we thought was the solution. They said the itching was due to the fact that she was not circumcised.
I was made to believe that circumcision will stop the genital discomfort my daughter was suffering, and that it will also ensure that she does not become promiscuous in future. So, I agreed with my wife to put our baby under the circumciser’s blade.
Later after the process, my wife shocked me by revealing that my daughter was number 18 of about 60 girls that were cut that day. She was made to understand that that was the number of children the circumciser received daily. The sad part is that the procedures were performed under unsanitary conditions, with scissors, razor blade or knives without the use of anaesthetics.
For three days after the process, my daughter writhed in pain every time she needed to urinate. She would cry uncontrollably and this broke my heart. Even after the pain stopped and she resumed her normal life, I continued to wonder if I made the right decision because I started to have interactions with anti-female genital mutilation campaigners. What I learnt made me regret subjecting my daughter to the process. Like many parents, I was ignorant about the negative consequences of FGM on a woman, especially in her later years.
Two years after I had my baby girl circumcised, I attended an anti-FGM summit held in Mapo Hall, Ibadan, the Oyo State capital. Circumcision practitioners under the aegis of Circumcision Descendants Association of Nigeria (CDAN) had gathered to make public their resolve to stop the age-long practice following the signing into law a bill criminalising female circumcision in the country by then President Goodluck Jonathan. At that summit, I learnt about the dangers of the practice and regretted that I could not undo the harm I ignorantly did to my little angel.
From the presentation made by Dr. Comfort Momoh, a Nigerian medical practitioner based in the United Kingdom, who runs London’s African Well Women’s Clinic at St. Thomas’ Hospital, I understood that my daughter went through the type 1 circumcision which is called clitoridectomy, a situation where the clitoris, which is the top part of the private part is either removed partially or completely.
According to Momoh, “the second type is sunna, when the clitoris and inner lip, also called Labia minora, is removed. The third type is infibulation where the clitoris, inner lip and the big lip, (Labia majora) are removed.” The doctor explained that in the case of the type 3 circumcision, the edges of the cut parts are stitched together leaving a tiny opening for the passage of menstrual flow and urine. She said “there is a fourth type which refers to the unclassified forms of female genital mutilation, which may involve pricking, stretching, cauterisation, or inserting herbs into the vagina.”
My fears and regrets doubled when Mrs. Aduke Obelawo, the Osun State Chairperson of Inter-African Committee (IAC) on eradication of harmful traditional practices (ATPs), a pioneer NGO against FGM, stated that Type 1 circumcision affects victims during childbirth, explaining that due to the scar on the genital, the expansion of the vulva during childbirth is inhibited a situation which can only be managed by a caesarian session to deliver the baby, if the initial difficulty to deliver the child did not cause any harm. Mrs Obelawo stated further that another side effect of the Type 1 and indeed other types of circumcision, is painful sexual encounters which lead to lack of urge or interest in sex.
Experts have also stated that apart from difficulties at childbirth, other complications may include infections, excessive bleeding, delayed or incomplete healing and possible damage to adjacent organs like the urinary tract which could even manifest in the victim years later.
According to UNICEF statistics, less than 200 million girls and women alive today living in 30 countries located mainly in Africa, Middle East and Asia, have undergone FGM. Of this figure, 20 million are said to be in Nigeria, meaning that one in every 10 FGM victim in the world is here. The 2013 National Demographic Health survey (NDHS) on National prevalence rate of FGM in Nigeria shows that 24% of women and girls in Nigeria aged 15-48 years have gone through FGM which has been described as a crime against the female folks in Nigeria, where most of the victims get circumcised between age zero and 15.
There are plenty of sad stories of victims; some of them have died from complications arising from FGM while some are currently living unsatisfied lifestyles.
One of the pathetic cases I have come across is the story of one Nneka who died in Ibadan. Anti-FGM campaigner, Dare Adaramoye, during an interview, narrated how Nneka underwent FGM with other girls as a baby in South East Nigeria about three years ago. Due to cultural demands and traditional beliefs, Nneka’s parents made her go through infibulation, the Type 3 circumcision.
After Nneka got married, sex was hard. It was discovered that the infibulation had practically blocked the passage to her vagina. A surgical procedure had to be performed to correct the damage. Four years after marriage, while still struggling to conceive, she had to battle with infection traceable to her genital mutilation. She finally conceived five years after marriage. Again, part of her female genitalia had to be cut open to allow the passage of the baby’s head while she endured serious pain. Weeks after the process, the suture of the surgery tore open and she began to bleed. Unfortunately, she was alone at home. When help finally came, she had lost so much blood. She died in hospital.
Adaramoye cited another case; that of Bolade, a nine-year old girl, who had undergone Type 3 infibulation. The wound healed but it left a huge scar and a keloid in her genitalia. As she grew older and bigger, the keloid kept growing.
He said that “at nine, the keloid was already the size of a big apple. Her family and friends of the parents had to contribute money to make the girl undergo a specialised surgery to remove the keloid and hopefully still retain the genitalia to be intact for childbirth in future.”
The case of another woman narrated by yet another anti-FGM campaigner, Gift Abu, stresses the fact that FGM is not only a crime against women but an abuse of the woman’s right to life. She narrated the story of a pregnant woman who died due to the insistence of her kinsmen that it was a taboo for an uncircumcised woman to give birth in the family. Her late husband had been the one shielding her from the kinsmen but they had their way following his death while his wife was pregnant.
According to Gift, who was a midwife, the woman had been living a normal life without circumcision until she became pregnant for the second time and was due for delivery. While she struggled on her due date, community leaders insisted that it would be a taboo for their daughter to give birth uncircumcised. But as healthcare officers, we refused to allow that. During the melee, there was some delay in giving medical attention to the poor woman. She died in the process.
This and many other stories show the plight of women and girls in Nigeria.
The situation is however not all totally gloomy. Efforts to stamp out FGM are yielding results. UNICEF global database on FGM/C as at October 2018 showed that the prevalence of FGM among girls and women in Nigeria aged 15 to 49 years dropped to 18 percent from 27% in 2011. FGM is currently 13 percent prevalent among girls aged 0-14.
In spite of this obvious statistical decline, UNICEF statistics show that Nigeria still ranks third highest among practicing countries in the world. Despite the 2015 law criminalising it, many communities are still in the practice. One of the setbacks was identified in February 2019 by Chief of Field Office, UNICEF, Enugu, Dr. Ibrahim Conteh. Speaking during a sub-zonal media briefing in commemoration of the 2019 International Day of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting organised by FGN/UNICEF Programme of Co-operation (2018-2022) in collaboration with Broadcasting Corporation of Abia (BCA), he stated that some of the state governments have been slow in follow-up and implementation.
He regretted that despite the fact that most states have domesticated the anti-FGM laws, no one has been prosecuted or jailed.
Speaking on behalf of the Oyo State government through Ministry of Health, the state Reproductive Health Officer, Mrs Bilikisu Olawoyin noted that parts of the state government’s activities to eradicate or reduce this barbaric culture to a barest minimum is an Enactment of Violence Against Persons’ law in 2015 that penalized anybody that engages or coerced another person in the act.
She added that the state government is collaborating with UNFPA-UNICEF joint programme on eradication of FGM through sensitization programmes on the media and at special occasions; training of members of the judiciary, law enforcement agents, community champions as well as consensus meetings with community gate keepers.
She however said that nobody has been arrested, arraigned nor convicted in Oyo State as there has been no report yet.
Dr. Wilson Imongan, Executive Director, Women’s Health and Action Research Centre, Benin City, explained that even though there are some cases of arrests there are no prosecutions because the cases are usually considered “a family affair”.
His words: “For instance a grandmother who believe so much in the cultural practice takes her granddaughter to the circumciser, would you arrest your mother or mother in law? It is not possible”.
A legal practitioner, Folake Ajayi, who works in Oyo State also believes no one has been arrested and arraigned for FGM. She however disagreed with Imongan’s view that it was because the cases were considered “family affair”.
“The law does not accommodate sentiments,” she said, explaining that the lack of prosecutions was due to the fact that the victims are usually children who cannot complain or prove anything thing against their parents. “If the parents claim their children were not circumsized, who can or who will contradict them” she quipped.
The lawyer who is also a women and children’s rights activist went on to break down the penalties stipulated in the law for FGM.
Her words: “Female Genital Mutilation is prohibited under the Oyo State Child Rights Law,2006 under Section 26 of the said Law. Under the said Law, an offender will be liable on conviction to a fine of N20,000 or imprisonment of 2 years or to both.
“The Oyo State Violence Against Women Law,2016 under its Section 9 also prohibits Female Genital Mutilation. A principal offender is liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding four years or to a fine of N100,000 or both.
“An attempt to commit the offence carries an imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or to a fine of N80,000 or both. Aiding and abetting another person carries imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or to a fine of N80,000 or both”.
On prosecutions, she said: “To the best of my knowledge ,no one has been arrested or arraigned. This could be attributed to the fact that in this State, FGM is performed on babies with the consent of their parents who would have complained on behalf of the babies”.
Imongan however suggested that continuous awareness and sensitization about the ills of the practice remains the best anti-FGM strategy.
Even though CDAN made an open declaration to stop FGM, some circumcisers still cut girls in secret. An investigation I conducted with the support of TigerEye Foundation of Ghana, revealed a lot.
That investigation revealed that the man, a member of the Alabede family, who cut my daughter was still in the act but was doing it in secret at his local theatre and residence at Ode-Aje Ajibola area of Ibadan in Ibadan North East Local Government Area of Oyo State. He now uses nurses and other trusted persons as proxy to get clients since it is now criminal to circumcise girls. “It is usually done at dusk when no one could suspect” the woman who introduced me to him in 2014 revealed.
Ramon is the 9th descendant in the Alabede family lineage. He inherited it from his late father who died in 2000. His late father had three wives and the first-born of each wife inherited the job. They have tribal marks which shows that they come from the home and family of circumcisers.
While Ramon charges N5000 to circumcise a girl, his brother, Sakiru, who resides in Ajegede area in the same local government charges about N2000. Circumcision is however a part-time job for Sakiru who is also a trained tailor.
Further checks revealed that the family owns another local theatre in Ojoo area of Ibadan. It was founded by their late father and run by another member of the family. Unfortunately, my efforts to capture a typical FGM procedure on the girls proved abortive.
My investigation also took me to Lagos, Osun and Ekiti States. In Lagos, there are such circumcision areas in Mafoluku area of Oshodi as well as Mushin, Alagbado and other areas of the state. In Ekiti, circumcision theatres can be found in Inipa and Isare in Igbara Odo Local Governments Area and Emure and other local governments of the state.
In Osun State, theatres are in Isale Osun and Ede communities. Not far from the palace of the Ede monarch at Oke-Oja, Elewe-eran house, I met with an Islamic cleric who is a descendant from the circumcisers’ family. In order to get more access, I disguised as a student of College of Health Technology, Ilesa in Osun State. The cleric who simply identified himself as Adura revealed that the job is a family business. I discovered he still circumcised girls but secretly.
Apart from this traditional circumcisers, there are medical practitioners who do it in hospitals though it has also become a secret practice since its criminalization by the government.
Apart from weak anti-FGM law enforcement, the strong traditional string attached which adds fetish and ritualistic gains to it, is another reason why the practice still persists. Some people have disclosed that some circumcisers do sell the cut clitoris to ritualists for fortune attraction rituals called ‘Awure’. Findings have connected female circumcision with the use of female panties for ritual purposes, because clitoris is seen as the power of humanhood.
A herbalist and Ogun priest who spoke to me on condition of anonymity in Ode-Aje area of Ibadan, confirmed that the clitoris is used to get spiritual power or wealth “but the repercussion is huge and a reason I don’t advise my clients to do it.”
But Remi Adeagbo Alabelewe, a circumcision practitioner in Osogbo, the Osun State capital, debunked the clitoris for fetish purpose narrative. According to him, “the cut-off clitoris is not usually given to the parents because they can mishandle it and because many parents can’t withstand blood, they don’t bother to ask for it; they leave it for circumcisers to help them properly dispose it. Although, if a parent demand for it, we’ll release it but I have never seen a parent ask for it. Can you do an operation in a hospital and you ask for cut-away parts?”, he enquired.
He continued: “I’m 60-years-old and those mothers who had undergone the procedure never had any complication. All these are products of civilization and despite the prohibition, people who believe so much in the practice still knock on our doors that we must do it for their girls”.
I feel compelled to continue my advocacy against FGM because of the guilt I feel and because I believe that men, considered to be the head of the home, should extend their authority to the protection of their girl children. Most importantly though, they need to remove the garment of ignorance and wear that of awareness.
Ignorance was when I fell for the FGM trap because of the itching my baby was feeling, but awareness is to stick to an expert advise from Prof. Modupe Onadeko, president of IAC on eradication of harmful traditional practices in Nigeria, which said: “On complaint that girls feel itching around their thighs and vagina, it is due to not keeping good hygiene.”
A publication by the Seattle Children’s Hospital in the US last revised in March 2019, agreed with Prof. Onadeko’s position. According to the article, “not rinsing the genitals at all can also cause itching. Any stool left on the vulva is very irritating. This can happen with loose stools or back to front wiping. It’s also seen in children who leak stool because they are blocked up. Traces of sand or dirt may do the same.”
The article mentioned that other possible causes of itching in the baby’s vaginal area include soaps that irritate the vulva or sitting in a bubble bath for a long time. The hospital’s experts advised that warm water be used to wash e inner female genitals while the skin around the genitals can be washed with mild baby soaps.
The article also pointed out that various fungal and bacterial infections which can all be treated by doctors can also cause genital itching.
On how men can contribute further to the fight against FGM, Mrs. Onadeko posited: “Men need to join the fight against FGM because they initiated it and until men stand up and say they won’t marry circumcised ladies, FGM will still continue.”
“Therefore, all hands must be on deck to eradicate this ancient practice and the law enforcement agents should implement and enforce the law against FGM. If at least if one can be arrested for the act, it will serve as a deterrent for others”