We Need More Than Laws: Female Genital Mutilation

The Nigerian government has taken an unprecedented leap toward acknowledging universal human rights by outlawing the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM), a procedure that involves partial or total removal of the external female genitalia for non-medical, and largely traditional, reasons.

Nigeria – a cultural and political powerhouse in Africa – introduced the new federal law banning the practice and also prohibits men from abandoning their wives or children without economic support. As the most populous country in Africa, Nigeria’s decision carries significant weight, but it would need to be implemented effectively.

Around a quarter of Nigerian women have undergone FGM – which can cause infertility, maternal death, infections and the loss of sexual pleasure – according to 2014 UN data. Moreover, it is estimated that 125 million girls and women globally are living with the effects of FGM, which is most widespread in Africa and the Middle East. The practice was already banned in some states, but now it will be outlawed throughout the country.

We hope, too, that the other African countries which have yet to ban FGM – including Liberia, Sudan and Mali, among others – do so immediately to give all girls a basic level of protection. The health risks of the practice are numerous, and include heavy bleeding, developing sepsis, urinary tract infections, cysts and becoming infertile, according to the WHO.

Thought the passing of this law is a significant step in the right direction, the struggle to end FGM in a generation is far from over. It is crucial that attitudes, as well as laws, are changed. A systemic cultural shift is required to make sure women and girls are no longer subjected to the harmful procedure.

Traditional beliefs hold that FGM will force girls to remain virgins until marriage, and remain faithful once they wed. It may be difficult for families to abandon the practice without support from the wider community. In fact, it is often practiced even when it is known to inflict harm upon girls because the perceived social benefits of the practice are deemed higher than its disadvantages.

It is crucial that we scale up efforts to change traditional cultural views that underpin violence against women. Doing so involves laws and policies, as well as community level engagement and programs that work to empower girls directly. Only then will this harmful practice be eliminated.