On 5 May 2015, Nigeria took an important step towards ending the physically and psychologically harmful practice of female genital cutting (FGC) by passing a law prohibiting the procedure. While enacting the law that bans the practice is an important step towards supporting the reproductive and human rights of women and girls, it is not sufficient to truly trigger eradication. Contributing to the skepticism about the impact the legislation can have in bringing meaningful outcomes are recent actions by representatives of the Nigerian government, which call into question how serious the government is about ending this dangerous practice.
As the most populous country in Africa, Nigeria contains one of the highest numbers of women and girl survivors of FGC, with UNICEF estimates reaching nearly 20 million girls and women. FGC entails the partial or entire removal of a woman’s clitoris. The World Health Organization classifies it into four categories depending on the degree of invasiveness and the extent of harm inflicted on a woman’s genital area.
FGC is predominantly practiced in Africa and the Middle East, although with changing migration patterns, reports in the United States and Europe are mounting. While many westerners view FGC as part of a particular religious doctrine, its roots are deeply embedded in societal and cultural norms and beliefs. In Nigeria, the act of FGC is pervasive throughout the country in both Muslim and Christian communities. FGC is associated with myriad health concerns, including: infection, urinary difficulties, sexual discomfort, childbirth complications, and psychological trauma. Equally significant is that the practice is an abuse of the human rights of women and girls to make decisions over their own bodies. This is particularly alarming when FGC is inflicted on young girls who are not old enough to give their consent, as is most often the case.
Given these major concerns, a global movement has picked up momentum towards ending FGC. Following suit, for the past two decades, government actors in Nigeria have shown some level of engagement to taking part in elimination efforts. Although the country made a commitment to end FGC with other participants at the World Health Assembly in 1994, it wasn’t until former President Goodluck Jonathan’s last days in office that national legislative action was taken and the law banning FGC was passed. Prior to its passage, several Nigerian states already prohibited FGC, yet the practice continued. A comprehensive implementation plan with accountability mechanisms is necessary, but there is no evidence of a plan, let alone money to implement it. Considering the presence of other laws eroding women’s rights, such as restrictive laws that prohibit abortion other than to save a woman’s life, the government’s commitment to the procedures necessary to end FGC is uncertain. If the tradition is truly going to be halted in Nigeria, then cultural change and community-driven mindset shifts must accompany the new legal framework.
An important component of this change involves educating youth on issues of sexuality and their sexual rights. For FGC to ever be truly eradicated, girls must be educated as to why this is not an action they want inflicted on their body. As such, it is imperative for adolescents to have comprehensive sexual education (CSE) in order to possess complete information to enable informed decision-making and the ability to exercise their agency. There are no signs that Nigeria will support CSE. On the contrary, Nigerian diplomats have been attacking provisions for CSE for adolescents in international meetings. At the 2015 Commission on Population and Development, Ambassador Usman Sarki organized concerted opposition to the CSE component of the CPD’s annual resolution, and successfully derailed it. This also reveals a significant lack of coherence in the government’s position on women’s rights. The government ban on FGC was passed just after Sarki’s action at the CPD. This would appear to be a failure of communication, or something more insidious – the government merely playing to an external gallery in banning FGC, but with absolutely no intention of implementing the ban. This suggests it has no concern about being held to account for its implementation of the ban.
It remains unclear how a country that shies away from committing to provide comprehensive sexual education for adolescents intends to eliminate the practice of a harmful tradition directed at the sexual control and manipulation of young girls. If Nigeria is serious about ending FGC, as it signified in law last year, then it must come to terms with the necessity of educating youth on their sexual rights.
Photo attributed to: DFID – UK Department for International Development
Mari Smith is a Master’s of Public Administration candidate at NYU’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. She has an International Policy and Management specialization, with a focus on development and gender.