Many years ago, as a single man in my early 30s, I dated a young, attractive West African woman. I liked her from the moment I laid my eyes on her. Janet (not her real name) was soft-spoken, well-mannered, educated, hard working and very easy on the eyes.
But any illusions of a future with her disappeared shortly after we started going out. As an infant, Janet had had been circumcised. And as an adult, she paid dearly. Sex seldom gave her pleasure; most of the time it was a grueling, torturous experience that sometimes left her wailing or sore for weeks.
I thought about Janet recently when female circumcision, more commonly and more appropriately known as female genital mutilation, made headlines again.
In an address last week to the African Union, an organization of the continent’s leaders of the continent’s 54 countries, President Obama said:
“We can’t let old traditions stand in the way,” he told the group in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. “When African girls are subjected to the mutilation of their bodies, or forced into marriage at the ages of 9 or 10 or 11 — that sets us back. That’s not a good tradition. It needs to end.”
In May, the Nigerian government outlawed the ancient and barbaric practice.
The warped idea behind female genital mutilation is that it suppresses sexual desire and keeps women chaste. But the practice has no health benefits or redeeming qualities. According to the United Nations, it typically involves the partial or total removal of external female genitalia.
It is often carried out by a traditional village “surgeon” with the use of a crude razor blade. Sometimes the girls are cut as infants and in some cases they are butchered as adolescents. The practice is often mischaracterized as an Islamic practice. In fact, it predates Islam and is practiced by Christians, Muslims and animists.
Female genital mutilation can lead to complications such as severe bleeding and problems urinating. Medical studies also show that it could ultimately lead to cysts, infections, infertility, complications in childbirth and a heightened risk of newborn deaths.
The World Health Organization says approximately 125 million women and girls have been subjected to female genital mutilation. The practice is concentrated in 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East. It has also been known to take place in some western countries with large communities of immigrants from these nations. According to the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), about 20 million Nigerian females between the ages of 15-49 have been subjected to genital mutilation.
By passing this law, the Nigerian government has struck a big blow for women’s rights in the developing world. And by calling attention to the practice, albeit briefly, President Obama has helped shine a light on a practice that treats females as second-class citizens and damages them for life.
This new Nigerian law could have a ripple effect on the rest of the continent.
Nigeria is Africa’s political, economic and cultural giant. Despite its many failings as a nation, Nigeria has always been a major force in leading change on the continent and throughout the region. In the 1970s, Nigeria’s leadership role on the continent was a major factor in toppling White minority rule in Rhodesia. Nigeria also played a key role in helping end apartheid in South Africa.
Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, told journalists the legislation sends “a powerful signal not only within Nigeria but across Africa. One cannot overestimate the impact of any decision by Nigeria [on the continent].”
Obama’s decision to bring up the subject during an important speech on the continent has the potential amplify that powerful signal. But the president needs to do more than mention the subject in one sentence. He should use his enormous popularity on the continent to nudge his colleagues to follow Nigeria’s example.
He should also push them to address other troubling practices that have dire repercussions on the health and welfare of females. For instance, child marriage remains a scourge in much of Africa. According to the International Center for Research on Women, of the 20 countries considered hot spots for child brides, 14 are in Africa. The others include India and Bangladesh. Girls as young as nine or 10 are married off to adult men. Many of these girls start having babies shortly after marriage and suffer lifelong health issues as a result.
A few weeks ago, a Kenyan lawyer announced plans to approach the Obamas about marrying their 16-year-old daughter Malia. The lawyer, Felix Kiprono, said he’d had his eye on Malia since she was 10. He offered to pay a bride price of 50 cows, 70 sheep and 30 goats for her hand in marriage.
Attacking female genital mutilation is a big first step in the struggle for women’s liberation, but that’s all it is – a step.
Lekan Oguntoyinbo is an independent journalist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.