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Monday, August 10, 2009

Under the knife

August 9, 2009
By Abiose Adelaja

It is still dark this Tuesday morning. About seven women bring their baby girls for circumcision at one of the most popular compounds on Kobomoje Street, Beere, a suburb of Ibadan, Oyo State. While the circumciser's sons are in front of the house ushering more women in, the circumciser, sitting amidst bottles of herbs, bowls of water, cotton wool, lime, knives and razor blades, is getting ready for the operation.

One-month old Temilade is the first. She cries till she runs out of tears; with what little energy she has, she wriggles her tiny legs and hands against the pressure of her mother's hand. Anyone hearing Temilade's cry might wonder about the texture of her mother's love. Ironically, the mother cannot bear the pain, looking away as the circumciser cuts part of Temilade's clitoris with a razor blade. Blood gushes out.

The circumciser, known as Baba Oloola, wordlessly dips a thick cotton wool in a bowl of herbs and presses it against her genital to stop the bleeding.

Temilade's voice is one out of millions of children around the world who have experienced what is now called the politically correct Female Genital Cutting (FGC). The World Health Organization reports that 130 million girls and women in 28 African countries undergo this operation every year; categorising it as a harmful practice against women, since it is an act that intentionally alters the genital organs of women for non-medical reasons.

Culture and heritage

NEXT's visit to Beere (the reporter disguised as someone interested in circumcising her child), last week, would seem to confirm the 96.8 percent prevalence rate in Oyo State cited in a National Baseline Survey in 2000.

The middle-aged circumciser, who gave his name as Akande, hails from the large Oloola Family of Ibadan and thus inherited the art from his grandparents. He circumcises male and female.

"I am an engineer by profession, but my father said he had to hand over to me because I am the first son," he says. Mr. Akande practices as a member of the National Association of Nigerian Traditional Medicine Practitioners, Ibadan branch. He also does tribal marks, treats convulsing children, malaria and other ailments using herbs.

Not surprisingly, he sees his job as service to humanity. "I am very content. I am happy to be saving lives. Several companies have called me, even UCH (University College Hospital, Ibadan) called me to be doing circumcision for boys; but the blessing I get from doing this job cannot be compared to whatever money I might have been making as an engineer." The entire procedure costs N3,000. This includes N1,000 for the operation, N1,000 for a bottle of herbs and N1,000 for other materials and services.

Activists say the practice is a violation of women's human rights and is against the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Culture vs the law

A Senior Programme Officer with BAOBAB for Women's Human Rights, Mufuliat Fijabi, said it is wrong to blame the practice on culture. "This culture is man-made," she said. "It is men who decided they have to control the sexual appetite of women. It is barbaric, it is harmful and should be stopped."

Only nine states - Edo, Delta, Ebonyi, Ekiti, Ondo, Osun, Ogun, Cross River and Bayelsa - have legislated against the practice. But the executive director of Inter-African Committee (IAC), an NGO working on traditional practices affecting the health of women and children, Oyefunso Orenuga, said the problem is not one of law but implementation.

"Our problem is; who implements?" She said. "The police, who are supposed to be implementing it, are not even aware or sensitised. So, the practice still goes on because culture dies hard."

According to a copy of the bill passed into law in Edo State, a circumciser shall serve a six-month imprisonment or pay a fine of N1,000 or both if caught, while in Ogun State the penalty is one year imprisonment.

Beyond the law

Mrs. Orenuga said her organisation is now targeting mothers directly. The efforts seem to be working. A 44-year-old woman, Mrs. Awotunde, who was circumcised, told NEXT, "I was circumcised at age six," she said. "I can still remember that I could feel the pain then. I was tied down, then they used something like (a) small knife to cut the flesh. They pulled up the flesh and cut it out."

A native of Ilora, Oyo State, the mother of three and English lecturer at the Lagos State Polytechnic, said she has changed her mind about circumcision. "Before, I thought that it was good and I would have circumcised my daughter if I had one. But now, I think it is not worth it, because it doesn't mean that an uncircumcised woman will be a flirt."

A professor of Community and Family Health, University College Hospital, Ibadan, Modupe Onadeko, explained the consequences of FGC. "Apart from short term consequences, such as (the) risk of transmitting HIV/AIDS, tetanus, hepatitis infection through unsterilised knives and blades or blood, women who are circumcised also suffer long term consequences such as obstructed labour due to narrowed vaginal opening."

Mrs. Awotunde however believes that circumcision helped her because she married as a virgin. "I don't feel any sexual urge unless I am touched," she said. "I don't see it as a problem, because many of us that married at that time married as virgins.