According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is a traditional harmful practice that involves the partial or total removal of external female genitalia or other injury to female genital organs for non-medical reasons. Usually, it is done for cultural or superstitious reasons. One of such is that it lowers the chances of promiscuity of young girls and the chances remain so until adulthood. This is common in patriarchal cultures where women are expected to be virtuous and chaste until marriage.
WHO estimate that more than 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone female genital mutilation in the countries where the practice is concentrated. In addition, every year an estimated 3 million girls are at risk of undergoing female genital mutilation. The majority of them are cut before they turn 15 years old. The practice is recognized internationally as a violation of human rights of girls and women and as an extreme form of gender discrimination, reflecting deep-rooted inequality between the sexes. This is why gender equality is one of the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations.
About 10% of global FGM victims live in Nigeria.
There are no known health benefits for this practice. In fact, it can lead to immediate health risks as well as long-term complications to women’s physical, mental and sexual health and well-being. To tackle this menace in Nigeria, the Federal Government has inaugurated a ministerial ad-hoc committee in Abuja by the director of family health at the Federal Ministry of Health, Dr. Boladele Alonge. Represented by the Head of the Gender, Adolescent School Health and Elderly Care division of the ministry, Dr. John Ovuoraye, Dr. Alonge said it was estimated that about 10 percent out of the 200 million girls reside in Nigeria.
She said that although the Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey (NDHS) reported a decline in the national prevalence of the practice between 2013 and 2018, some three million girls and women are still at risk. She stated that the National Policy and Plan of Action for the Elimination of FGM provided a clear plan to guide the activities of different stakeholders in all fields. It also provided a clear plan to guide systems and practices, including requests that attention be given to identified emerging hotspot states.
Expert predictions about the practice are concerning.
In her words, the purpose of all these is to ensure that men and women as well as boys and girls in all their diversity are well-informed on the dangers of the practice and be fully involved in the elimination process of the barbaric custom. So, the committee is expected to work with the national technical committee, which is the central coordinating and advisory body to the Federal Ministry of Health on issues of FGM toward implementing activities to eliminate the menace.
Dr. Christian Subam, the officer-in-charge of the United Nations Population Fund in Nigeria, said that according to UNFPA estimates in 2023, more than 4.3 million girls are at risk of the practice. He projected the number to reach 4.6 million by 2030. This is because conflicts, climate change, rising poverty and inequality continue to hinder efforts to transform gender and social norms that underpin the harmful practice and disrupt programs that help protect girls. In Nigeria, the NDHS 2018 notes that 20 percent of all women aged 15 to 49 have undergone the practice, while for girls aged 0 to 14 it is 19.2 percent.
Medicalization of FGM still remains a threat in Nigeria.
“This is in spite of a decrease in the national prevalence from 25 percent to 20 percent (2013, 2018 NDHS),” he said. Nigerian women and girls represent 22 percent of the 68 million at risk of being mutilated by 2030, which is 14.8 million women and girls. According to Dr. Subam, the medicalization of FGM in Nigeria remained a threat and that there is a need for escalated awareness. WHO is strongly opposed to medical practitioners performing it and urges all health workers to uphold the medical code of ethics to harm no one. Medicalizing it normalizes and condones the practice and hinders long-term efforts for abandoning the grave violation of the human rights of women and girls.