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What is Wrong with Female Genital Mutilation?

Mr Olalowo; the victim of a cruel tradition
Mr Olalowo; the victim of a cruel tradition

Beatrice Rumaga (not real name) is in every respect a dignified lady. She hails from Benue State, a minority base in the middle belt area of Nigeria. Tall, slim and elegant, she is an epitome of beauty, much to be desired by men. But she is bitter against her people; she is aggrieved with a tradition, which compelled her to be circumcised at the age of 16. Her story: “At 16, a lady is considered ripe for marriage, and just before she is given out to a man, she is expected to go through circumcision. And so when the community elders came to make this demand, I objected and told them I was not interested. But my parents would have none of such eccentric behaviour. ‘It is forbidden’ my father thundered. My mother cried and pleaded that I consent to it so as to uphold the communal tradition and also prevent my family from being ostracized. I could not help but oblige.”And what happened afterward?“

Two old men dragged me down on top of some banana leaves and cut off my clitoris. I bled for 12 days and suffered fever for three months. Shortly afterwards, I was given out in marriage. Now I have a daughter who is 16 and they are making the same demand. But I have told them it’s not possible. It just won’t work. If my parents could not stand their ground to protect me, I am going to stand and protect my own daughter from this cruel traditional practice,” she protests.

Tradition calls it circumcision, but today, several NGOs especially those fighting for rights of women and girls argue that it is mutilation. A Nigerian father named Hammed Olalekan Olalowo was recently beaten for objecting to the female genital mutilation of his daughter, According to New Telegraph report, the father was attacked by his kinsmen -family and members of his community – on his way home from an outing for not subjecting his daughter to the exercise.Olalowo explained that he was on his way home when some men began taunting him for not allowing his daughter to be circumcised. He was thereafter beaten and left to die, with bruises all over his body, a swollen face and severe bleeding. It was gathered that his wife had to run away from her matrimonial home with her children when she was asked to bring her daughter for the circumcision. New Telegraph further reported that human rights activists have described the act as barbaric and have blamed it on the Nigerian government for not providing adequate security to its citizens against such practices.

It is true that both religion and science accentuate the practice of male circumcision. The argument is that it is to prevent infection from settling in the delicate part of the body and to ensure that a man is sexually sensitive. Perhaps, there would not have been so much agitation and national/international campaign against female circumcision if the reasons were as fair as that of their male counterparts. But research finding says otherwise.

Describing it as odious and inhuman, Mrs. Bose Ironsi stated that female genital mutilation is injury; it is the total or partial removal of the female external genitals.” Speaking at a workshop organized by BAOBAB for Women’s Human Rights, she explained that “The external female genitals comprise the vulva, made up of the labia majora and minora, clitoris, clitoris prepuce, virginal orifice and the urinary meatus; hence any interference with the natural appearance of the female genitalia, using a blade, knife, scissors, sharp stone or any sharp instrument in order to bring about either reduction in size of the clitoris or a complete removal of the vulva is mutilation”.

She enumerated various types of mutilation

:• The removal of the clitoris prepuce or top shin. This can be described as equivalent to male circumcision.

• The total removal or partial cutting of the clitoris and all or parts of the labia minora and in some cases labia majora.

• Infibulations involving the excision of part or all of the external genital and stitching narrowing of the vaginal opening. It entails the complete removal of the clitoris, the labia minora and the adjacent medical part of the labia majora in their anterior two-thirds. It is called infibulations because it involves the stitching together of the two sides of the vulva with thorns, cat cut or silk thread.Scarification of the clitoris prepuce cut into the clitoris and labia minora as well as into the vagina e.g. Gishiro in the North.

Several reasons are given by families and communities for having FGM performed on their daughters. These include:

• Psycho-sexual reasons: reduction or elimination of the sensitive tissue of the outer genitalia, particularly the clitoris, in order to tame sexual desires in the female, maintains chastity and promote virginity before the marriage and as well as fidelity during marriage

.• Sociological reasons: Identification with the cultural heritage, initiation of girls into womanhood, social integration and the maintenance of social cohesion;

• Hygiene and aesthetic reasons: the external female genitalia are considered dirty; and are to be removed to promote hygiene and provide aesthetic appeal;• Myths: enhancement of fertility and promotion of child survival.

• Religious reasons: some Muslim communities practice FGM in the belief that it is demanded by the Islamic faith, although the practice predates Islam.Thus, while some traditions hold that it be performed when a girl child is under two weeks old, some others believe it should be at the inception of puberty.

Others still do it, either before marriage or during a woman’s first pregnancy. Imagine a teenage girl playing games with her friends, only to be cornered by some old men/women, dragged down and subjected to some severe cuttings in her private part. And while she is groaning in pains and bleeding, the perpetrators and family members begin to wine and dine.A woman once narrated her ordeal. “I was seven months pregnant when my mother insisted I be circumcised. I refused, but she and other older women persuaded me, saying it to widen my vagina orifice and make delivery easier. They also said that if the head of a baby touches the clitoris, he will die. I obliged and by the time they were through, I felt really horrible. In fact, I lay in a pool of blood for some time. I later realised that I should have conserved enough blood for childbirth. How sad that when it was time for me to deliver, I ended up in hospital where I had to be transfused with blood before I could recover strength. I escaped death narrowly.

”The question is, if male circumcision is meant to pave way for maximum pleasure, why should a woman’s sexual desire be suppressed or tamed? Why should she be subjected to so much horror, only for a small opening to be left in order to increase the man’s sexual pleasure? Is sex meant for the men to enjoy alone?

In the words of Mrs. Rita Oseghae: “The same men that agitate for female circumcision to attenuate their pleasure also complain that the women are frigid and sexually inactive,” This according to Bose Ironsi, “is tantamount to double standard.”

Another factor is that female circumcision, rather than prevent promiscuity in ladies, actually aggravates it. The reason is obvious, those ladies whose clitoris have been yanked off, whether partly or totally, have serious problem enjoying sexual intercourse.

In the end, they keep moving from one sexual partner to another in search of the elusive pleasure. Any wonder then that it is in those areas where girls are mostly circumcised to prevent promiscuity that we have increased number of ladies reputed for prostitution, both at national and international levels.

Much more than this, there are several physically dreadful and health risk complications arising from female genital mutilation. This depends on the gravity of the mutilation, hygienic conditions, skill and eyesight of the operator and the struggles of the girl/lady involved during operation.

Talking about complications, Mrs. Ironsi identified effects such as excruciating pain, haemorrhage from rupture of the blood vessels in the clitoris, post-operation shock, and death as some of the terrible effects of Female Genital Mutilation. “The bad eyesight of the operator or the resistance of the girl/lady may cause damage to other organs: the urethra, anal sphincter and the vagina walls. Acute urine retention due to pain and fear of passing urine on the raw wound is common,” she added.

“In addition, the instruments used are not sterilized; hence the child can have tetanus, HIV and hepatitis B, especially when genital mutilation is carried out simultaneously on groups of girls. Infibulations damages the sexual organs and the reopening of the vulva after marriage. Moreover, those who perform these mutilations are protected by the community, hence when complications or death arise, it is attributed to witchcraft and ‘juju’, not the excision or the fact that the instruments were not steriled”, lamented Ironsi.

Ironsi identified the most common long term complication as lack of sensation during sexual intercourse as a result of scarification or the removal of the clitoris and labia minora. “The vagina walls narrow further when the scar tissue formed from the cuts of the walls shrink. This leads to dysmenorrthe (painful menstruation) as the menstrual blood cannot flow freely. It also causes painful sexual intercourse,” she said.

“Ïn addition to the excision that renders the whole genital area permanently and unbearably insensitive to touch, there is the development of a tumour composed of nerve tissues. During childbirth, the scars in the clitoral zone can open and where scarring is extensive, Vesico vagina fistula (VVF) can develop as a result of obstructed labour. Death is even possible as in some cultures; excision is carried out at the seventh month of pregnancy.

”Infibulation may cause bladder inflammation as some girls are unable to fully empty their bladder through the small opening left, the semi-sealed condition of the vagina may pave way for chronic infections, dermatoid cists, keloid scars, which can obstruct walking.With so many scary and heinous side effects on ground, one cannot but be worried that even in this 21st Century; some still believe that tradition must be upheld.

“Are cultures not dynamic? Can’t they be changed? Are they beyond scientific modifications? Should women continue to be thus oppressed?” These and many more are the traumatic questions bugging the minds of women’s rights agencies. It is doubtful how much success they will achieve with their numerous campaigns and enlightenment programmes.

Not much may be recorded though, until perhaps there are national and international laws condemning female genital mutilation. Not much may be achieved until women renew their minds and come off some of these repressive traditional practices. Not much may be done until men become selfless and begin to treat their female counterparts as partners in progress, not slaves and sex zombies.

Girl Power
Gender-based Violence
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