Female genital mutilation FGM is widely practiced in Nigeria, a country which, with its large population has the highest absolute number of cases of FGM in the world. The number of FGM cases in Nigeria accounts for one-quarter of the estimated 115-130 million circumcised women in the world according to a UNICEF report.
In today’s article of the #FightingTheCut series, we talk to Nnamdi Eseme, an anti-FGM campaigner from Nigeria. Nnamdi is also a reproductive health advocate. He serves as the coordinator of the Youth Network against Female Genital Mutilation, an umbrella body of all the youth organizations working to ensure the abandonment of the practice of FGM in Nigeria. He engages in robust advocacy, community mobilization for social change, communication to drive commitment in ending the practice of FGM. Eseme also empowers women and girls with relevant information to question the motives behind the practice of FGM in their communities. So far, he has trained over 200 youth on the use of social change communication to end harmful social norms such as FGM. He envisages an FGM-free Nigeria.
Here’s our conversation:
With the different cultures in your country, where can you place the FGM practice? Culturally contextualize it.
“In culturally contextualizing the FGM practice in Nigeria, I would say the practice is peculiar to different cultural settings in the sense that different cultures in Nigeria practice FGM for different reasons. The peculiarities of these cultures determine the extent or type of FGM performed. However, a general linkage to all the reasons for which FGM is performed in Nigeria is to control the sexuality of women and girls. Practicing communities believe that an uncut girl would be potentially promiscuous due to an insatiable sexual drive in women. However, this belief is a myth and has no proof. In some cultures it is believed that married women who are unfaithful could result to the death of their husbands and to check this occurrence, such communities see FGM as an option. For example, it is still believed in some communities in southeastern Nigeria that if a husband is aware of the infidelity of his wife and still goes ahead to eat a meal prepared by her, he would die. But if he is aware and still wishes to keep her as his wife, she must undergo some form of ritual cleansing to purify her home. And parents of such women are disregarded in the community . So to avoid being labelled “parents of a promiscuous wife who killed her husband as a result of her infidelity and improper home training”, parents consider female genital mutilation as a way of avoiding such situations.
However, unfaithful husbands suffer little or no punishment from the community. In fact, certain cultures silently consider a husband’s infidelity as normal age. Thus, there is an issue of inequality, making women recipients of emotional pain, distrust and unfaithfulness of their husbands.
Other reasons for which FGM is practiced in Nigeria include:
– As a rite of passage into womanhood which is accompanied by a colourful event involving feasting, dancing and celebrations.
– Increasing chances of marriage
– Hygiene and beautification
– Fear of cultural backlash
– Social acceptance, etc.
For how long has it been practiced and to what extent? Is it concentrated in a few areas, or a few communities or is it widespread across the country?
“It is difficult to tell for how long FGM has been practiced in Nigeria since there are different types practiced in different communities. There is no record indicating that all practicing communities agreed to commence the practice at a certain time. However, considering the age and stories of survivors, it can be said that the practice has been in existence for hundreds of years. And it is concentrated in certain areas: more in some parts of Western, Eastern, Southern and Northern Nigeria respectively. The reason for it’s low prevalence in northern Nigeria is not unconnected to its taboo nature and certain religious barriers that makes gathering data difficult.
According to reports, Nigeria has the highest number of absolute cases of FGM which raises concerns as to motivations behind the practice.”
Are there any legislations outlawing the practice? Are they in force?
“Yes there are. Currently, there is the Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act 2015 (VAPP 2015) which has a section specific to the practice of FGM. VAPP 2015 outlaws FGM as an offence liable to a 4 year jail term with the option of a fine. Also, some states have their own legislations against the practice. However, as is common with legislations affecting legislators from defaulting communities, domestication and prosecution of defaulters has been the challenge of the VAPP Act 2015. Due to the deep cultural importance attached to FGM, legislation against the practice is weak. This is exacerbated by support from notable and influential traditional and religious leaders from practicing communities.”
What prompted you to become an anti-FGM activist?
I was prompted by sad stories of survivors and seeing the harmful effects of the practice on innocent women and girls in Nigeria. I wanted to use my informed position as a women’s rights activist to empower women and girls in Nigeria with the right information to question motivations behind harmful cultural practices such as FGM, child marriage, etc. Also, I was prompted by the huge gap and poor access to essential sexual and reproductive health information and services by women and girls in difficult-to-reach communities in Nigeria who are most affected by FGM. I envisage a Nigeria free of FGM where every girl can live freely and fully realize her potentials without being cut.”
What are some of the milestones you and other activists in your country have achieved in fighting FGM?
“So far, positively disruptive efforts by anti-FGM activists in Nigeria have led to noticeable shifts in social norms regarding the practice of FGM, breaking barriers and galvanising support from all corners. More people are joining the campaign against FGM. As testament to this, in 2017, three communities in Ebonyi state, Southeastern Nigeria publicly declared their abandonment of the practice while some other communities are in the process of doing same. This to me, is a great achievement. Robust advocacy has led to increased awareness, reiterating the harmful effects of the practice and informing otherwise ignorant practicing communities about existing legislations against the practice. More gatekeepers, policy makers, development partners, traditional and religious leaders as well as young people are joining the movement thus reaching more communities. New statistics are beginning to emerge indicating a positive shift. I believe that in the last 4 years, the campaign has gathered momentum penetrating hard-to-reach communities. I am hopeful that the next National Demographic Health Survey of Nigeria would capture the decline in the practice and reels the extent of positive impact created by the efforts of anti-FGM activists. However, more work need to be done.”
What challenges do you face in fighting FGM and what recommendations have you to better fight it in order to achieve more?
“There is the lack of political will, poor access to practicing communities due to poor infrastructure. Resistance, misinterpretation of intent of activists by gatekeepers, pressure by development partners and declining funds to support the anti-FGM campaign.
There would always be challenges but looking at the bigger picture, I would recommend that everyone comes together to join the anti-FGM campaign irrespective of our areas of interest.
Having non-allied campaigners join the movement would enable us achieve more, having a reverberating effect on concerned stakeholders to make deliberate commitments in ending the practice. Also, development partners should learn to work with stakeholders without the pressure of unrealistic targets such as changing cultures that have been in existence for hundreds of years in just a few years or months. Social change takes time. Finally, anti-FGM activists should constantly seek capacity development, work as a team, and engage effective use of communication and proper use of the media.”
Are you from a community that still practices FGM? What are you doing about it? Reach out and you could be featured in the #FightingTheCut series.
Our next article will feature Fatma Naib, a journalist, producer and filmmaker who is also an anti-FGM advocate.