Nigeria’s bill targeting FGM is a positive step, but must be backed by investment
Women walk in the city of Kano in northern Nigeria. It is estimated that a quarter of Nigerian women aged between 15 and 49 have undergone female genital mutilation. Photograph: Sunday Alamba/AP Photo
A gender violence law seeking to ban female genital mutilation must be supported by efforts to tackle the attitudes that underpin abuses against women
The Nigerian senate recently passed its violence against persons prohibition (VAPP) bill, which seeks to eliminate female genital mutilation (FGM) as well as all other forms of gender-based violence.
Women’s rights groups, practitioners and activists in Nigeria have been pushing for the law for the past 13 years. It is a major boost not only for Nigeria’s women, but for the nation as a whole. The question is: will it make a practical difference?
Women and girls cannot reach their full potential when their basic rights to health and security are not honoured.
FGM is most often carried out on young girls – robbing them of the chance to have a healthy life – with severe immediate and long-term health complications, often leading to death. In parts of Africa where medicine is not advanced, such as in areas of Sudan where antibiotics are not available, an estimated one-third of girls who undergo FGM will die. Those who survive face lifelong problems including increased risk of infections, cysts, complications during childbirth, and newborn deaths.
It is estimated that 25% of girls and women between the ages of 15 and 49 have undergone FGM in Nigeria. The practice is most widespread in Africa and the Middle East, where it has been carried out on an estimated 125 million girls and women alive today, but it is prevalent around the world. In the UK, where FGM has been outlawed for more than three decades, an estimated 60,000 girls below the age 15 could still be at risk. It is also illegal to take British citizens or residents out of the country to undergo FGM, yet it continues to happen.
Such laws are a must. They are particularly critical for organisations working tirelessly to end FGM. In Nigeria, this law provides them with a legal framework and backing to tackle the problem. The legislation sends a clear message on impunity and serves as a basis for holding government to account.
However, criminalisation of entrenched cultural practices has its limitations. While legal safeguards are an important step towards ending FGM, they are not enough to eliminate it. Ending violence against women and girls requires investment, not just laws written in statute books. This is why we must emphasise community engagement, with a view towards shifting social norms, as a critical component of the eradication of FGM.
Patriarchy allows child marriage and female genital mutilation to flourish
It is crucial that we scale up efforts to change traditional cultural views that underpin violence against women. Only then will this harmful practice be eliminated. Doing so involves laws and policies, as well as community level engagement and programmes that work to empower girls directly. Education is crucial, and must work in conjunction with school systems. It is also important to promote reporting of the practice, ensure perpetrators are prosecuted and address stigma.
Change will not happen overnight. Investing in research is key to developing effective, sustainable and evidence-based solutions. Harmful practices such as FGM not only affect women and girls, but are also a major impediment to global development efforts to end poverty.
A case in point is a flagship programme from the UK’s Department for International Development, entitled what works to prevent violence against women and girls. The scheme will build evidence on effective solutions to prevent violence against women and girls.
One branch of the programme involves adding to existing data on the economic and social costs of violence against women and girls, which will create a better understanding of the far-reaching consequences of violence at all levels. Producing new evidence is crucial in strengthening the case for resources to implement laws, provide health and social support services, and encourage communities to move away from social norms that support violence.
It has been 20 years since the Beijing declaration and platform for action, a blueprint toward achieving equality that denounces all forms of violence against women. Prioritising the rights and wellbeing of women and girls is long overdue. Violating their right to a safe and productive life not only has a profound effect on them, it has an impact on every one of us.
Ensuring that the human rights of women and girls are protected means flourishing economies, healthy communities and a brighter future for us all.
Stella Mukasa is the director of gender, violence and rights at the International Center for Research on Women, a Washington DC-based global research institute focused on women and girls