Despite a law banning the practice in 2015, female genital mutilation (FGM) is still widespread in Nigeria, with young girls who have reached puberty being cut behind closed doors, especially in rural areas.
It is estimated that worldwide more than 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone FGM, which involves the ritual cutting or removal of external female genitalia. The majority are in Africa, as well as in the Middle East and Asia. In Nigeria, nearly 20 million women living today are thought to have undergone the procedure, according to U.K.-based charity 28 Too Many, which works in 28 African countries where FGM is practiced.
In Nigeria, FGM is illegal under a bill that criminalizes “harmful traditional practices” and carries a maximum punishment of four years in prison and a 200,000 naira ($635) fine for performing the procedure.
But some activists say the law isn’t properly enforced. A more effective way to stop the practice, they say, is to focus on raising awareness of the dangers of FGM and challenging the ingrained ideas of the procedure as a cultural necessity.
The Value Female Network (VFN) is one of the groups that have taken on that mission in Nigeria. Since it was set up in 2015, the NGO has been working to end the practice in Osun state, which has an FGM prevalence rate of 76.3 percent, believed to be the highest in Nigeria. In partnership with the Sheri Care Foundation, an NGO owned by the wife of the governor of the state, VFN educates communities and provides retraining to cutters in occupations such as hair dressing, farming, makeup and bead making.
“Every five minutes, a woman or girl is being mutilated,” says Aderibigbe Costly Abosede, director of the Value Female Network. “Some members of the organization and I were victims of this culture. We saw this as a major challenge in our community, and nation, so we decided to take a bold step in tackling it.”
Women & Girls met with Abosede to discuss the organization’s efforts to eradicate female genital mutilation and the challenges it comes up against.
Women & Girls: Why is FGM still commonplace in some southern Nigerian communities, despite the government having banned the practice?
Aderibigbe Costly Abosede: This law doesn’t eradicate FGM in Nigeria, not with some states having figures as high as 70 percent. This is happening because FGM is deeply rooted in culture, which is very difficult to change. In addition, the majority of cutters are ignorant of the fact that it’s an inhuman practice. More important, the law is yet to be adopted by so many states and, even for states that have adopted it … it is not been properly enforced.
Women & Girls: Do you think the increasing determination of NGOs working to tackle the issue of FGM in Nigeria will eventually stop the practice?
Abosede: If we don’t relent, things will change. Anti-FGM campaigns will halt the practice if we double our efforts. This will ultimately lead to increased coverage of FGM-related issues and create more awareness that would eventually induce social and behavioral change.
Women & Girls: What kinds of campaigns and community programs have you initiated to end FGM?
Abosede: So far, we have been doing a lot of things to improve [people’s] understanding of gender equality and human rights. We have organized campaigns in southern states like Osun, Oyo, Ekiti and Lagos, and walked through the streets to raise awareness on the issue.
We also try to engage market women, because they wield significant influence in their communities. Realizing that we cannot leave out girls who are at the heart of the issue, we started carrying out sensitization campaigns in schools to educate girls to fight for their rights. We also do regular radio shows on FGM and get gender advocates to speak up and educate people.
Women & Girls: What difference are you making in the communities you’ve visited?
Abosede: Since we began this campaign in 2015, we have been able to get 14 communities from four local government councils in southern Nigeria’s Osun state to take bold steps in denouncing FGM practice. As we speak, around 250 babies from these communities have not been circumcised from April 2015 until today.
Women & Girls: FGM is usually carried out by traditional practitioners driven by their belief of what is considered appropriate cultural behavior. What are you doing to convince these cutters to stop?
Abosede: We are currently trying to provide training in alternative occupations for at least 50 traditional cutters, along with a little financial support to help them establish small businesses in their communities. We also realized that some of them are smallholder farmers, so we will be creating an agricultural extension program to provide basic services to the women. We hope to scale this imitative to thousands of cutters in Nigeria.
Women & Girls: What kinds of local models are necessary to enable in-country anti-FGM campaigners and organizations to eradicate the practice?
Abosede: I think the first important step is to begin with data collection, since it will be difficult to make significant progress without accurate information on the number of people affected in Nigeria. We need to employ a methodical approach that would have at its core in-depth interviews with cutters, girls, community leaders and parents to establish the main reasons why the practice still continues today.
And depending on the situation, interventions must be aimed at initiating and effecting a positive behavioral and social change that must be acceptable by the people and communicated in a language they can understand.
Women & Girls: What motivates you to keep fighting this cause?
Abosede: A good number of our founding members are FGM survivors, and we are determined to contribute toward putting an end to it in our generation. We believe that wherever there is a will, there is always a way, so we have got to keep fighting till the end.