On the 5th of May, Goodluck Jonathon prohibited the circumcision of women in Nigeria in his final act as President. The prohibition on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) thus became nationwide; consolidating the ban on the ritual already made in 36 of Nigeria’s states.
Activists and campaigners are celebrating the implementation of the law, declaring it to be a ‘hugely important precedent’. Being the most populous country in Africa, it is easy to see why the decision has been hailed as a significant step towards tackling the issue.
Nigeria, in proportion to its population, has potentially the highest absolute number of women subjected to FGM worldwide. A 2008 demographic survey by Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (FMECD) found 30 per cent of all Nigerian women have had FGM performed on them. In conjunction with UN statistics, this accounts for roughly one-quarter of the estimated 115–130 million circumcised women in the world.
Although it is one of the latest African countries to legally condemn the practice, it is still not the last. The pressure is now on countries such as Liberia, Sudan and Mali who have yet to ban circumcision on women. Nevertheless, even in the countries in which the ban has been implemented, there has been little improvement in preventing the ritual and rarely any convictions.
Egypt made a move to ban FGM seven years ago; however, recent research shows it is still very widely practiced. The most recent Unicef report estimated that more than 90 per cent of married Egyptian women over the age of 15 had been mutilated – 72 per cent of these procedures were performed by doctors. Though Egypt has a smaller population size than Nigeria, the high percentage in proportion to the population means it also accounts for one-fourth of the cases worldwide.
There were celebrations in January of this year as Doctor Raslan Fadl was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for performing FGM on a 13-year-old girl, causing her death. Although it was a historic decision, the fact it took seven years to reach a conviction is alarming. It’s clear that simply outlawing female circumcision is far from enough to tackle the issue.
Out by the roots
The practice of FGM is rooted in longstanding social norms – beliefs, attitudes and behaviours – shared by a community. The norms that endorse female circumcision are often founded on tradition as well as cultural and religious misconceptions, all believed to be in the interests of girls and their communities.
It is for this reason that outlawing the practice has done little to actively prevent it. Studies, such as the ones conducted by World Vision, have demonstrated that using a preventative approach rather than an offensive one produces more successful outcomes.
In order to achieve this there must be an increased awareness of FGM on both a local and national level.
The Local Government in Ethiopia, for example, works closely with informal institutions (faith communities, women’s groups and funeral committees etc.) to create space for dialogue around the issue. While this cannot possibly account for reaching every citizen, there is still great value in identifying the individuals and leaders in communities who will be the most powerful agents of change and encouraging them to oppose the practice of FGM together with the underlying social norms which drive it.
Furthermore, there is a great need for collective agreement between the religious leaders in the area to actively dismiss the perceived religious basis for FGM. The practice is prominent across Nigeria’s 50 per cent Muslim and 40 per cent Christian population. World Vision’s research in Ethiopia found that religious leaders’ rejection of FGM can be a ‘powerful symbol for the rest of the community’.
The role of the community in preventing FGM
The vitalness of raising awareness through the spiritual and cultural leadership of affected communities cannot be underestimated. The Western culture has taught us to be incredibly individualistic. Perhaps it is for this reason that female circumcision – a ritual based on reliance on values shared within a community – bewilders us so much. Nonetheless, the role of the community, which could be used as a breeding ground for misinformation, can also be used in the same manner as an effective tool for the spreading of new ideas and more accurate content.
Hopefully, the governing and community bodies of Nigeria do not consider the ban to be the end of the matter; but rather, the first move in a declaration of war in the long fight against the practice of FGM.