By Abiose Adelaja Adams
The cutting of the total or part of a woman’s external genitals continues in most parts of Nigeria despite legislations against Female Genital Mutilation. Abiose Adelaja Adams reports on the uphill task of stopping this practice which inflicts lifelong injury on many women.
Although there are no signposts or landmarks introducing it, Alhaja Bintinlaiye Trado Home is well-known in Ikire, Osun State. All one needs is to ask for Ile-Olugun. From the little boy chasing a cock through the streets, the one rolling a disused tyre in the dirt to the woman selling stuff by the roadside, all will point in the same direction – the peculiar mud bungalow in the rural area of Irewole local government council area.
This herbal medicine home is where scores of young women make bookings for antenatal care and delivery. Truth is, in these parts, they believe more in the power of herbal medicine over orthodox, and so have no fear whatsoever that the 60-year old traditional birth attendant, TBA, will harm them.
But the home is also popular in the locality as the place to go for your little girl’s circumcision
Dressed in a lemon green kaftan and a black chiffon veil that partially covered her head and face,BilikisuBintilaiye, who was mixing a concoction of herbs for the next woman in labour, said she had been in this practice for 48 years, as handed down to her by her forefathers. Speaking in Yoruba, she said circumcising newborn girls is routine for her.
“It is our family occupation. We do not have another job. Once they are born, the following day, very early before sunrise, we have to cut it out (the flesh covering the clitoris) and return the skin to the mother.”
Describing herself as a native doctor with17 years of work experience in Saudi Arabia and India, she considers circumcision a sacred duty that must be performed in the sustenance of her culture. “I did one for the baby girl that was born yesterday. If we had known we would have arranged for you to come early and watch me do it. It’s no big deal at all,” she grinned, somewhat excited to be interviewed.
“But don’t worry, I have another woman in labour. Once she gives birth, if it is a girl, I will do the circumcision immediately just for your sake.”
Sounding confident about her expertise, she showed this reporter a certificate entitled ‘Oath of Allegiance’ which recognises her as a member of the National Association of Nigerian Traditional Medicine Practitioners.
The circumcision of Baraka
Six months old Baraka was brought for circumcision by her mother and this would be done in the presence of this reporter. Bintilaiye asked one of her attendants to bring the girl into the labour room. Placing her on a bed in the dimly lit room, she put on a pair of nylon gloves, washed the scissors in a bowl of hot water, and then used soap and Izal to disinfect it.
“Female circumcision is even the easiest”, she said repeatedly, “easier than male circumcision. It is very, very easy. You will just pull up this place (pointing at the clitoral hood) and cut the flesh with the scissors.”
She was not clear on where to ‘pull up’, only pointing vaguely to the clitoris. Many possibilities went through the reporter’s mind as she watched. What if she cut too much flesh or she cut the wrong flesh, given that the room was dimly lit with only a wooden window open to let in sunrays? The chances of cutting something in error were also high with the baby turning and twisting her legs aggressively in protest. No anesthesia was given her. The hygiene was also a cause for concern as the room was far from being clean.
Meanwhile, the baby cried out loud in protest while the mother and one other adult pressed her to the bed. As she nipped the clitoral flesh, blood spurted out. She immediately stopped the flow with cotton wool soaked in some concoctions. Removing her nylon gloves afterwards, she cleaned the scissors in the same hot water, soap and Izal, and explained the cultural belief behind her action.
“If you don’t cut the child, if she grows up, it may affect her. If by the time she is giving birth and the child’s head touches the clitoris, the baby may die. You know, not every nurse knows how to midwife and some while they are midwifing, pull the child upwards towards the clitoris, instead of downwards.”
Exiting the operation room, Baraka was pacified with a candy, while Bintilaiye pointed to the pot of herbs she had hitherto mixed. “Here is a pot of herbs used in the treatment of the child, so she doesn’t get weak. We give this to the mother too, so the baby can suck it when breastfed and we also give English medicine like Ampiclox. In less than one week, the baby will be healed from the cut.”
Similar procedures, which usually last less than two minutes, have impacted negatively medically and psychosociallyon the lives of at least 130 million women and girls worldwide.
In Nigeria, 40 per cent of women have been circumcized. In Osun state, the prevalence is 80-90 percent according to a Nigerian demographic study. And, the World Health Organization, WHO, observed that this kind of cutting has nomedical benefit.
According to UNICEF, 30 million more girlslike Baraka are at risk of being cutin the next decade. Many regard the practice as an extreme form of discrimination against women and girls. It is also seen as a violation of their rights to health, security and physical integrity; their right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
Iironicallyy, Bintilaiye says she is unaware of any campaign against it, though Osunis one of the nine Nigerian states that have legislated against FGM/C.
At Ibadan, Oyo State
In the ancient city of Ibadan, Oyo State, is the popular circumciser called Baba Kobomoje. He is from the renowned Oloola family in Bere. Explaining it from the religious point of view, he said circumcision for male and female is a compulsory commandment by God Almighty.
Claiming to be quoting from the Bible and Quran, he said, “God commanded that on the seventh day the ‘child’ should be circumcised. The child can mean male or female.” His claim is an apparent distortion of a bible verse in Genesis chapter 17, verse 12 which states that “every man child” should be circumcised from generation to generation.
Baba Kobomoje, an electrical engineer, abandoned his career for fulltime circumcision and scarification long ago. Every morning, he welcomes dozens of women who come in tocircumcise their eight-day old baby boys and girls. He charges N1,500 for the boys and N3,000 for girls. He also does various kinds of tribal marks, and administers herbal treatment for malaria and convulsion.
The 59-year old, whose cheeks are also lined with tribal marks, said he has been carrying out circumcision since he was nine years old! Among his inherited beliefs is the conviction that “if a woman is not circumcised, she will be very promiscuous. She will be easily aroused if a man touches her.”
Furthermore, he said “as she grows older, the clitoris grows as well until it looks like the comb of a cock. Some will protrude like a man’s penis, and if she wears trousers, she will be greatly aroused to the extent that she can almost grab a man on the street.”
Although Kobomoje is aware of the campaign against circumcision and has been sensitized, he remains defiant. He said he has trained all his sons to continue the practice.
“I don’t think we should set aside God’s word in the name of tradition,” he maintained. ”The way God covered the man’s genital with the fore-skin is the same way that God covered the woman’s. We only remove the skin covering of clitoris, so it will not outgrow. We are not doing female mutilation,’ he insisted.
Shao, Kwara State
Further north is Kwara State in the North central zone. According to a University of Ilorin study in 2012, about 79 percent of girls in the state have been circumcised by age five. The www.icirnigeria.org learnt of Shao, a community where all young girls are married off in a mass wedding in one day, and where female circumcision is rife. The experience in this small town under the Moro local government area is that old circumcisers are dying off, while their sons are taking over.
Abdulfatai Oloola, 38, told us that he has been circumcising girls since he was 15. He is a civil servant at the Moro council office, so he is not doing this because of the money.
“It is a tradition handed over to us by my grandfather’, he said, “and we have to continue it. There is nowhere they don’t do it in this place. They even call us in the clinic and government hospitals to come and do it, and they pay us.”
When asked what he uses, he said it is neither blade nor scissors. It looks like a short knife. He also gives the girl a medicinal wristband to expedite the healing after the procedure.
Just like Bintinlaiye and Kobomoje, Abdulfatai also says that the idea behind it is to curb women’s sexual desire; to keep their virginity, and thus increase their matrimonial value. The second reason is to prevent a baby’s head from touching the clitoris during child birth.
“If the girl-child doesn’t do it, when she grows up, she must still do it before marriage. Otherwise she will always have high sexual desire. Also when it (clitoris) is too long, it affects birth bearing. And some parents don’t want their children to flirt around, so they bring them to us.”
What parents are saying
In some houses few meters away from Bintilaiye Home, www.icirnigeria.org sought the opinion of some parents. A 36-year-old pepper seller, Mama Khadijat, echoes what many others said. She wouldn’t reveal the number of children she has, as it is a taboo to do so in her culture, but she said her eight months old girl and all her other daughters were circumcised. “We can’t but do it,’ she said in Yoruba. “It is a must in our tradition.´
Akeem Olaitan, a father and wholesale distributor of pharmaceutical drugs reinforced this primordial thinking.
“It is a culture in our land that all our female children must be circumcised. It distinguishes them from the other ones, who as a result will end up promiscuous and not find any serious man to marry them,” he said confidently.
His first child, a female, is circumcised and married now.
Examining some of the beliefs that still drive female circumcision through the lens of science, there is no established link between the clitoris and any adverse effect on the baby’s head that can lead to death. The clitoris is an extremely sensitive part of the female organ. It gives pleasure to the woman just as the penis does to man.
Thus, the practice of cutting all or part of it to rein in a woman’s sexual desire is considered by activists to be discriminatory and selfish on the part of men.
Olufunmilayo Gbogboade, executive director of Inter Africa Committee against harmful traditional practices on women, IAC, Abeokuta chapter, who was circumcised as a child provides a historical perspective to the practice.
“This thing started during the slave trade period where men, because they want to suppress their wives, cut it off because they fear they will go behind them to enjoy sexual intercourse. It is slavery. It is not culture. If it is culture, then culture is dynamic,” she said.
Demonstrating with a cast, she described the three categories of cutting as practiced in various ethnic groups. The first is the removal of the clitoral hood. This is the type Bintilaiye and Kobomoje practice. The second is the removal of the inner labia. The third is the removal of the inner and outer labia and closure of the vulva, leaving a small hole for the passage of urine and menstrual blood, while the vagina is opened for intercourse and opened further for childbirth.
WHO reports that the procedures can cause severe bleeding, problems urinating, and later cysts, infections, infertility as well as complications in childbirth and increased risk of newborn deaths.
“By the time the woman has developed cysts in the vagina, how can she enjoy lovemaking?” Gbogboade queried.
There are other ways by which circumcision impacts on women and affect their relationships and their lives. For people who argue that it prevents a woman from being promiscuous, some women say that is achieves the exact opposite of that by causing frigidity.
An example is Anthonia Ogunsetan, a lawyer who got married as a virgin two years ago at 39. Up till now she does not have children. It is not clear whether circumcision is responsible for lack of conception. But she faces a bigger problem because she is frigid and does not enjoy any kind of arousal which makes sex with her husband an unpleasant experience.
“I just married for the sake of it. I don’t even understand what they enjoy in sex. My husband has tried many ways to get me in the mood, but its not my fault” she said.
Any legislation against circumcision
FGM/C is deeply entrenched in the culture of many people in Nigeria. Sadly, there is no federal Law against it. Nigeria is a signatory to international laws such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, CEDAW, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, but these are not domesticated yet.
For legal cover against the practice, activists rely on Section 34(1) (a) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria that states, “No persons shall be subjected to torture or inhuman or degrading treatment.”
Sadly, even in states that have enacted legislation against it, the laws are weak in and most times not even implemented.
Bintinlaiye’s case is an example of lack of implementation.
“Implementation is the problem,” said, Modupe Onadeko, the national president of IAC. “The law is not being implemented because the law enforcement agents who are supposed to do this are not informed,” continued Onadeko, who is also a gynecologist and professor of Family Medicine, University College Hospital, Ibadan.
“Only nine states,Edo, Delta, Ebonyi, Ekiti, Ondo, Osun, Ogun, Cross River, Bayelsa,have passed the law. We are hoping it will be passed in Oyo state.”
Another problem is that the sanctions imposed by the law do not appear to be a stiff enough deterrent. In Edo state, for example, persons convicted are subject to a fine of N1, 000 fine and six months imprisonment. In Ogun State, the law, which was passed in 2006, prescribes one year imprisonment perpetrators.
Fighting a long entrenched cultural practice
According to Gbogboade, the prevalence of FGM/C has reduced in Ogun since the passage of the law, though it is still commonly practiced in the hinterlands.
“The task is enormous because there are some who are still in the interior we may not know,” she conceded.
Narrating her NGO’s efforts she said that “it got to a point, the circumcisers saw us as their enemy, and worked to take our source of livelihood from us. So we had to give them alternative employment opportunity, but we couldn’t convince the hard core ones.”IAC Abeokuta chapter carries out sensitization through the traditional leaders of various communities, she said.
“We may not achieve 100 per cent success, but we recorded at least 75 per cent success.”
Other challenges they face is from migrants.
“We are still facing challenges from other nationalities, for instance, from Republic of Benin, who are still practicing it.”
Ogun State Commissioner for Women Affairs, Elizabeth Sonubi, has promised to start arresting perpetrators in the state. “But before then, we will do enlightenment, capacity training workshop that would involve all the law enforcement agencies, community leaders and Traditional Birth Attendants.”
The situation is, however, different in Lagos. Although there is no overt legislation against FGM in Lagos, laws like the Child Rights Act enforced against street trading and child abuse also covers it.
“In our work, we have not really found a place where it is done, except places where you have migrants from other ethnic group doing it secretly,” Kehinde Fasinu, a lawyer with IAC, said.
Zero tolerance to FGM/C
Every February 6, the International Day of Zero Tolerance to FGM is commemorated in Nigeria, but there has been no significant reduction in the prevalence, rather the tradition is beginning to filter into hospitals.
Onadeko in an interview told our reporter that this year’s campaign is targeted at hospitals and health practitioners who are now ‘medicalizing’ FGM.
“Some nurses and medics have been found to be culpable in the practice of FGM in hospitals. It is against the WHO principle. This year we are mobilizing nurses and involving health personnel,’ Onadeko stated.
The fight to eliminate this practice is like a hydra-headed monster in the hands of NGOs.
Zero tolerance means concerted efforts to fight the ingrained ideologies held dearly by the likes of Kobomoje, who quoted a Yoruba proverb which says there is a curse upon any child that allows his ancestor’s business to be destroyed.
In a nutshell he said, “Civilization does not ban us from doing our traditional work. There is no law banning us. No doctor can stop us. No law bans us from doing our traditional work.”