The Platform

Olivier Asselin/UNICEF

ENUGU, Nigeria – Obinna Ugwu was not even 10-years-old when he first heard about female genital mutilation (FGM) in his community in Nigeria’s southeastern state of Enugu. As a boy, he saw the procedure as an important traditional practice that must be observed to avoid health issues later in life.

“While growing up, I thought it was a normal thing that must be done,” he told me. “Then, I even thought if a female is not mutilated, something bad might happen to her or she might experience something difficult in the future.”

Female genital mutilation involves the partial or total removal of the external and sensitive part of female genital organs. It is usually carried out on young girls between infancy and age 15, using unsterilized tools like razor blades and small knives for non-medical reasons.

At least 200 million women and girls in about 30 countries have undergone FGM, according to the World Health Organisation. And every year, over 4 million girls are at risk of undergoing FGM. In Nigeria, where Ugwu is based, nearly 20 million women and girls have been subjected to female genital mutilation.

These days, the medicalization of FGM – when the procedure is carried out by health professionals – is becoming a trend in some countries around the world. Statistics showed that one in four FGM survivors, or about 52 million women and girls, who have undergone the procedure were ‘operated’ on by health professionals. In Nigeria, about 13% of the nearly 20 million survivors were cut by health professionals.

The WHO has established that either performed by a healthcare provider or traditional birth attendant, the practice of FGM has no health benefits especially as it causes health complications such as infections, pain, severe bleeding, and other complications during childbirth.

A young woman in Burkina Faso who chose not to undergo female genital mutilation after a public information campaign. (Jessica Lea/DFID)

In communities where female genital mutilation is practiced, many believe the procedure will prepare a child for marriage, make her clean and acceptable in society, and, in their belief systems, resist impure thoughts.

But after participating in a one-day training session organized by the Society for the Improvement of Rural People (SIRP), a nonprofit committed to improving the living conditions of rural people in southeast Nigeria through livelihood training, in early October, Ugwu, now 32, was convinced he needed to change his perception about female genital mutilation.

“The training was to enlighten participants and to ensure health workers stop the practice of FGM altogether. Whether done in the hospital or elsewhere, it does not change anything because the bleeding and complications will still be there,” Chris Ugwu, the Executive Director of SIRP, said. “We know the importance of engaging youths, [that is why] the central message revolved around youth saying, ‘No to the medicalization of FGM.’”

That morning, about 15 youths gathered inside a hall belonging to the nonprofit. The training, which was facilitated by a lawyer and an experienced “end FGM” activist in Enugu, educated young people on advocacy action against the medicalization of FGM.

“Based on the training organized by SIRP, I discovered that FGM done by health workers or non-health workers is wrong. It violates the human rights of girls,” Ugwu said. “So I am in support of SIRP. We want to end the practice [altogether].”

Importantly, the two-hour training organized by SIRP is already making an impact. After the training, some of the youths went around sharing flyers given to them by SIRP. In the process, they explained what the medicalization of FGM is all about and how it puts girls subjected to the procedure at risk.

“The impact is now profound. People never knew it is bad when performed in the hospital, too. One major impact is that we now have highly knowledgeable youth who can fully explain what medicalization of FGM truly means,” Chris Ugwu said. “This knowledge has since manifested itself in their strong desire to advocate for its end here in Enugu State. We are currently witnessing a change in the mindset and attitudes of most people with regards to FGM.”

He adds that his desire is to see a state where no girl will be subjected to the procedure.

With support from the Wallace Global Fund and facilitated through the Global Media Campaign to end female genital mutilation, SIRP has continued to train young people to advocate against the practice – whether done by health professionals or not.

Meanwhile, Ugwu has not stopped educating friends and those who visit his hair salon in Enugu. He believes dialogue is the best way to end female genital mutilation.

“Each time people come to my barbing salon to have their hair cut, I first give them flyers and also use the opportunity to explain the dangers of FGM whether done by health workers or non-health workers,” he said. “I noticed many of them don’t even know about FGM let alone medicalization of FGM. But I am happy they are beginning to understand.”

Ekpali Saint is a freelance journalist based in Nigeria. He reports on religion, environment, health, and development issues in Nigeria. His reporting has been published by foreign outlets, including FairPlanet, America Magazine, National Catholic Reporter, Catholic World Report, and Christian Century.