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.
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.”
The warped idea behind female genital mutilation is that it suppresses sexual desire and keeps women chaste. 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.
The Nigerian government, which banned the practice, 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.
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.
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.