Towards eradicating female genital mutilation in Nigeria

DuniaMekonnenTegegnAuthor: Dunia Mekonnen Tegegn
Human Rights Lawyer and Gender equality advocate

Nigeria is home to over 180 million people, 49.4% of whom are female. Along with the rest of the population, the Nigerian female population will experience dramatic increases in size by 2050. As far as violence against women is concerned, federal law addresses sexual violence, physical violence, psychological violence, harmful traditional practices, and socio-economic violence. The law also cites spousal battery, forceful ejection from the home, forced financial dependence or economic abuse, harmful widowhood practices, female genital mutilation/cutting (“FGM/C”), other harmful traditional practices, substance attacks (such as acid attacks), political violence, and violence by state actors (especially government security forces) as offenses.

A 2019 survey on domestic violence found that 47% of respondents had suffered from domestic violence or knew someone who had; 82% of respondents indicated that violence against women was prevalent in the country. Police often refused to intervene in domestic disputes or blamed the victim for provoking the abuse. In rural areas, courts, and police were reluctant to intervene to protect women who formally accused their husbands of abuse if the level of alleged abuse did not exceed local customary norms.

The prevalence of FGM in Nigeria

FGM refers to all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injuries to the female genital organs for cultural or other non-medical reasons. In Nigeria, about 250 ethnic groups scattered across 36 states (including the Federal Capital Territory (“FCT”) contribute to the national and regional FGM/C prevalence burden. The effect of population growth is that increasing numbers of girls and women are likely to be cut in Nigeria, even if overall FGM/C prevalence remains the same. FGM affects girls and women psychologically and physically, with immediate and long-term effects.

According to the World Health Organization, some 19-20 million women have undergone FGM in Nigeria. It occurs both in urban and rural communities. Some studies indicate that the practice is higher in cities in Nigeria. The United Nations Population Fund reports that in Nigeria, 25% of women and girls aged 15-49, have undergone some form of FGM. Nigeria has the world’s third-highest FGM/C prevalence. It is estimated that 25% or 19.9 million Nigerian girls and women 15 to 49 years old underwent FGM/C between 2004 and 2015. These numbers are only third to Egypt’s 27.2 million victims and Ethiopia’s, 23.8 million. The prevalent type of FGM practiced in Nigeria is Type II which involves the removal of some flesh. More than 60 percent of women and girls who have undergone FGM have had their genitalia cut.

In Africa, FGM is known to be practiced among certain communities in 29 countries: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Cote d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, and Zambia.

Who Performs FGM in Nigeria?

The NDHS (National Demographic and Health Survey) 2018 indicates that 7% of circumcisions carried out on girls aged 0-14 and 8.6% of women aged 15-49 were carried out by medical professionals, with the majority of female circumcisions carried out by traditional circumcisers. The circumcisers typically have little to no formal education or medical training. This poses a risk of HIV and other infections. Some girls also experience painful urination and menstrual cycles from suturing the vagina, leaving only a tiny hole for the passage of urine and blood. The practice contributes to maternal mortality and fistula (a hole between the vagina and rectum or bladder that causes an uncontrollable discharge of urine or feces) formation, as a result of complications during childbirth, including heavy bleeding. That is especially true for pregnant women who go into premature labor at seven or eight months when their wounds from FGM/C have not yet healed.

female-genital-mutilation-nigeria

The relationship between FGM and ethnicity in Nigeria

According to the United Nations Population Fund, ethnicity is the most significant factor in FGM prevalence, cutting across socio-economic class and level of education. Members of certain ethnic groups often adhere to the same social norms, including whether or not to practice FGM, regardless of where they live. In Nigeria, FGM is more prevalent in the southwestern (Yoruba-speaking region) and Southeastern (Igbo-speaking region). The reasons given by these ethnic groups include social conformity and community identity. It is regarded as a tribal traditional practice that is performed for the preservation of chastity and purification.

FGM/C prevalence among girls in terms of ethnicity follows a pattern like that observed in their mothers, even when these mothers were out of their indigenous areas. The Yoruba people are an ethnic group of over 20 million people in total, inhabiting the southwestern and north-central regions of Nigeria, as well as southern and central Benin. Though the Yoruba are not the majority, they are also located in the northern parts of Nigeria where the Hausa’s and the Fulani’s are the majority. The Igbo-speaking Nigerians are located in Abia State, Akwa-Ibom, Anambra State, Bayelsa, Cross-River, Delta State, Ebony State, Enugu State, Imo State, and Rivers State.

Though they are a minority, the Igbos also exists in the Northern part of Nigeria in fewer numbers.

The relationship between FGM and age of the victim in Nigeria

The age range for FGM varies.  In some areas, FGM is carried out during infancy – as early as a few days after birth. In others, it takes place during childhood, at the time of marriage, during a woman’s first pregnancy, or after the birth of her first child. Recent reports by UNFPA suggest that the age has been dropping in some areas, with most FGM carried out on girls between the ages of 0 and 15 years. In Nigeria, though the practice is mostly performed on women and girls aged 0-15, there are instances in which adult women may have the ritual performed on them. For example, when a woman is pregnant, the practice is performed on her in the belief that if the child’s head touches the clitoris, the child will die.[1]The practice is also performed during childbirth by an adult woman in the belief that the process will cleanse the adult woman. Most adult women perform the practice believing that they can be considered proper women, and are marriageable in their society.[2] Adult women also perform the process during pregnancy and childbirth because of their belief that the child’s head will touch the mother’s clitoris unless she undergoes FGM.

Measures taken by the Nigerian government towards ending FGM

Nigeria has responded to the international call for the elimination of FGM/C in several important ways. In 2015, President Goodluck Jonathan enacted a law called the ‘Violence against Persons Prohibition Act’ (hereinafter VAPP act) which seeks to eliminate FGM, as well as all other forms of gender-based violence. The Nigerian government also developed the first national policy and plan of action for the elimination of FGM in 2013 and revised this in 2018. The 1999 constitution of Nigeria prohibits any form of torture, inhuman or degrading treatment. Similarly, the Child Rights Act of Nigeria has provisions protecting women and girls from FGM.  Nigeria ratified the Maputo Protocol in 2004. Under article 5 of the Maputo Protocol, FGM is listed as a harmful practice. This requires governments to provide support services and the designing of awareness raising campaigns to enhance the awareness of the public on the impacts of FGM.[3]

Gaps in law and practice in ending FGM in Nigeria

The VAPP act has only been domesticated in 13 states in Nigeria and it is only applicable in the Federal Capital Territory. Nigeria’s law also did not provide a clear definition of Female Genital Mutilation, did not stop parents from taking children to other countries to be cut, and did not address a growing global trend for nurses and midwives who carry out FGM. Countries like Burkina Faso and Senegal stipulate that medical professionals who perform FGM should face the maximum penalty. [4]

There is also no cross–border application of the VAPP act. A parent in a state where the law is domesticated could take a child from that state to another state where the law is not adopted for the child to go through FGM. There is no legal protection provided for women and girls in the 23 states in Nigeria which have not domesticated the 2015 law. Further, the practice follows ethnic group members who practice it. Mere relocation to another state does not suffice as long as the ethnic group members are also located in that specific state. This is made worse because relocating to a state that has no legal protection would mean no prosecution for such an act. There is a chance for example for a Yoruba woman or girl to be subjected to FGM despite relocation to the North where the Violence against Person Protection Act has not been endorsed as long as her ethnic group lives in that particular region.  Research also indicates that even in the 13 states where the federal law is domesticated; there is low awareness among members of law enforcement. Some members of law enforcement also see the act as something private which does not warrant state protection. In addition to the aforementioned, “it is estimated that 1 out of every 100 Nigerians know about the existence of this law. It is also estimated that only 10 out of every 200 Nigerians really know what this act says or means.”

Conclusions and recommendations

The Human Rights Council adopted a resolution calling for “intensifying global efforts and sharing good practices to effectively eliminate female genital mutilation in 2014″. This was reinforced in 2015 when FGM was included in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) under Target 5.3, “eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation.” The United Nations General Assembly adopted The Girl Child Resolution (A/RES/70/138) recognising FGM as a form of “discrimination against the girl child and the violation of the rights of the girl child in 2016. In a positive shift to promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment, the US house of representatives endorsed the ‘strengthening the opposition to Female Genital Mutilation Act of 2020 or the STOP FGM Act of 2020’ in March 2020 that also recognised the cross- border protection of victims of Female Genital Mutilation in the United States.

The eradication of FGM was relevant to six of the UN’s eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which passed their deadline in 2015. In 2012, the UN General Assembly dedicated 6 February as the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, to amplify and direct the efforts on the elimination of this practice. In September 2015, the UN passed the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which replaced the MDGs and has a new deadline for the achievement of 2030.Following the spirit of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5 (Gender Equality), the UN is striving for the full eradication of FGM by 2030. The 17 SDGs aim at five ‘areas of critical importance for humanity and the planet’ – people, planet, prosperity, peace, and partnership. Although Nigeria signed up to the MDGs, it did not enforce them until savings from the Paris Club Debt Relief Deal in 2005 could be resourced. Research also indicates that the oversight of the goals did not start for additional four years, and statistics are allegedly unreliable.

Despite such developments in the area, cultural relativism is exhibited in Nigeria most especially in the practice of harmful traditional practices such as female genital mutilation. In Nigeria, FGM is protected by culture; a culture that is passed down from older generations to the younger ones. Culture though reinforced by patriarchy sustained by elderly women within the community.

The writer recommends the following actions be taken to effectively prevent and end FGM in Nigeria:

  1. Harmonisation of laws per international and regional human rights standards
    • The Violence against Persons Protection Act of Nigeria should be revised to reflect cross–border application of the law to minimise the number of women and girls that are subject to FGM in states where it is currently not domesticated.
    • The Violence against Persons Protection Act of Nigeria should also include a provision to the effect that the conduct of the practice by medical personnel is outlawed and is punishable.
    • The federal constitution of Nigeria should clearly and broadly define violence against women to include female genital mutilation.
    • Nigeria’s Child Rights Act should be revisited to include a clear definition of female genital mutilation.
  2. Advocacy and awareness-raising efforts 
    • The Nigerian government and other stakeholders should design advocacy efforts to intensify the domestication of the VAPP act of 2015 in the remaining 23 states.
    • The Nigerian government needs to allocate resources towards advocacy efforts to end FGM, and also implement advocacy campaigns around FGM to the general public.
    • CSOs both at the international and local level should design targeted, and well-tailored awareness-raising campaigns in the 13 states where the Violence against Persons Protection Act is already domesticated to police officers, women groups, and lower-level government representatives.

[1] Interview, Ms. Bassey EkanemIquo , Magistrate in the Cross-river State of Nigeria, August 11, 2021.

[2]. Supra note 1.

[3] African Union Commission, Women’s protocol, 2005, art 5 available at https://au.int/sites/default/files/treaties/37077-treaty-charter_on_rights_of_women_in_africa.pdf  accessed on 08/28/2021

[4]Emma Batha, Thomson Reuters Foundation, Nigeria urged to fix legal mess around female genital mutilation, available at https://www.reuters.com/article/us-nigeria-fgm-lawmaking/nigeria-urged-to-fix-legal-mess-around-female-genital-mutilation-idUSKBN1JB02Q, accessed on 08/28/2021

About the Author:

Dunia Mekonnen Tegegn is a human rights lawyer who has been working with the American Bar Association’s Center for Human Rights where she coordinated the Center’s work on Ethiopia through close collaboration with Ethiopia’s Democracy and Human Rights CSOs to ensure human rights are prioritized and protected within the criminal justice system.  She has previously worked with Amnesty International USA as an Almami Cyllah Fellow, the UN OHCHR East Africa Regional Office, the United Nations Agency for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment and the United Nations Children’s Fund. Dunia also taught law at Haramaya University Law School other universities in Ethiopia. In 2016, she was named as the first Ethiopian/African woman to receive a National Security LLM with distinction from Georgetown University’s Women’s Law and Public Policy Program.  She holds a Bachelor of Laws degree from Bahir dar University, Ethiopia and a Master’s degree in Human Rights from Addis Ababa University. Dunia also co-manages an NGO called EmpowergirlsNow that focuses on raising awareness on FGM in Sub-Saharan Africa.



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