One of the reasons Nigeria’s former president, Goodluck Jonathan, fell from power in 2015 was his seeming inability or unwillingness to find and rescue the almost 300 Chibok schoolgirls abducted and enslaved by Boko Haram the previous year. Still, in one of his final acts as Nigeria’s leader, Jonathan made a positive impact on the lives of Nigerian girls: He signed a law banning female genital mutilation (FGM). Feminists and other human rights activists consider this law—which also makes it illegal for men to abandon their wives and children without financial support—a huge gain for women’s rights.
Data compiled by the United Nations in 2014 confirms what has long been known: FGM causes psychological and physical damage, including infertility, loss of sexual pleasure, severe infections, fistulas, endangered childbirth labor and death. In 2017, it is estimated nearly 25 percent of Nigerian women are enduring the effects of the procedure. Some 125 million women, residing primarily in Africa and the Middle East, suffer the lifelong aftereffects and ramifications of FGM.
British newspaper The Guardian joined the United Nations in an effort to fight FGM: With the support of the U.N. Population Fund, the paper helped local journalists cover the actual effects of the procedure. The new law in Nigeria can in part be attributed to this effort—added to at least five decades of work on this is- sue by regional African and Middle Eastern women’s movements, and by feminists in the global women’s movement as well. The practice has also been confronted by women’s rights activists in the global north, where it occurs in some immigrant communities. In the United States, clitoridectomy was practiced as late as the 1940s as a “cure” for masturbation or lesbianism.
The work in Nigeria continues. Activists warn that eradicating FGM as a systemic, culturally ingrained practice will take time.
“With such a huge population, Nigeria’s vote in favor of women and girls is hugely important,” says Mary Wandia, FGM program manager of the international NGO Equality Now to The Guardian. “We hope, too, that other African countries that have yet to ban FGM—Liberia, Sudan, Mali, among others—do so immediately, to give all girls a basic level of protection.”
Stella Mukasa, director of gender, violence and rights at the International Center for Research on Women, adds in Christian Today, “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 em- power girls directly.”
Despite work yet to do, the ban is encouraging—and has largely been helping. It gives young Nigerian women opportunities to express themselves free from fear of this traditional practice, which has been so oppressive to their health and spirit.