It started off as just another day of clinical rounds at Ladoke Akintola University.
Costly Aderibigbe, then 24, was in her 3rd year of studying Medicine and excited about transitioning from pre-clinical to clinical wings.
That day in the clinic, she saw woman after woman battling complications of female genital mutilation (FGM). She felt sorry for them as she observed them struggle through obstructed labours and the loss of their children, and wondered why people would do such things to the people they loved.
Intrigued, she decided to do more research on the issue and was surprised to discover that Osun state had the highest prevalence rate of FGM in the country. Her curiosity quickly turned into concern. She was an Osun state indigene, born and raised. Most women in Osun were cut as babies and usually didn’t find out until they were much older. ‘Could I have been cut too?’ she wondered.
Rather than let the idea fester in her mind, she went back home to speak to her parents. ‘I hope I wasn’t mutilated,’ she asked. Her parents answered her matter-of factly telling their daughter it was normal for girls to be cut in Osun state and she was no exception.
Decades earlier, mother-to-be Esther Ojo was at her doctor’s office trying to get to the bottom of the strange pains she’d been experiencing during her pregnancy.
This was Esther’s first child, but she knew something wasn’t right. Sometimes she’d feel sharp pains in her womb, as though she would give birth immediately’ other times it felt as though her womb was empty. Then there was the strange discharge from her vagina, where was it coming from? What did it mean? She was confused and even started questioning her husband’s fidelity.
Earlier in their marriage, sex was a battleground and she found it difficult to be intimate. It wasn’t enjoyable for her and it really hurt. Her husband couldn’t understand it and they argued,
As she relayed everything to the doctor, she hoped she would finally get some answers. He started asking her questions about her body and the things he described sounded familiar. But when he asked her about female genital mutilation, she had no idea what he was talking about. He asked her to call her mother and ask if she had been cut. So she did and her mother casually replied that she had.
‘The highest prevalence rate in the country’
Costly and Esther are part of the estimated 20 million women and girls that have undergone female genital mutilation and cutting (FGMC) in Nigeria. As of 2016-17 the number of women who have undergone FGM in Nigeria is 18.4%.
FGM is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as ‘all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injuries to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.’
There are four types of FGM. Type one involves the partial or total removal of the clitoris, type two is the partial or total removal of the clitoris and labia minora, type three is called infibulation, where some or all of the external parts of the genitals are cut off and the opening of the vagina is narrowed a sealed, a small opening remains for the passing of urine and menstrual fluid. Type four is unspecified and involves and includes non-medical piercing, scraping or picking of the vagina.
All types of FGM have both long term and short-term complications. Some short-term complications include pain, excessive bleeding, shock, infection and death. Some long-term complications include PTSD and depression, painful urination, recurrent infections which can lead to infertility, lack of sexual pleasure, pain during sex and obstetric complications.
In Nigeria, Imo, Ebonyi, Oyo and Ekiti all have high prevalence rates of FGM and former President Goodluck Jonathan banned the practice in 2015.
In Osun state, the practice has been banned since 2004 but according to the 2016-2017 Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey published by the National Bureau of Statistics, UNICEF, WHO and other agencies. It is the state with the highest prevalence rate in the country with 67.6% of women and girls undergoing the cut.
‘Superstition, myth and taboo’
Situated in the south-west of Nigeria and roughly 200km from Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital, Osun is a place of cultural importance to the Yoruba people and followers of Yoruba religion. It is believed that the creation of the world started in Osun and as result, the place cited as the site Ile Ife is referred to as the ‘cradle of the Yoruba.’
Osun is a ‘multi-religious’ state with a sizeable population of both Christians and Muslims and FGM doesn’t discriminate along religious lines. It is widely accepted in Osun that FGM has no basis in religious doctrine, with 88% of women and 94% of men saying that religion does not require it, according to the 2013 Nigerian Demographic Health Survey report. Instead, FGM is grounded in deeply held cultural myths and tradition.
The most widely believed myth is that uncut girls are more likely to be promiscuous, but there are other pervading myths too, like if an uncut woman has a baby it will die because the baby’s head will touch the mother’s clitoris, or an uncut woman’s clitoris will grow until it becomes bigger than a penis and will eventually start dragging on the ground.
In Osun the most common type of FGM is type two; cut and flesh removed, with 85.2% of women and girls having undergone this type, but other types are also performed. 86.2% of girls in Sun are cut before the age of five, some as early as 8 days old.
‘The Oloolas- the owner of marks’
Traditionally, in Yoruba culture, each family had its own occupation. Some were drummers, others palm wine tappers, some, blacksmiths. Children were born into professions and the craft was taught to them by their families. It was the same with circumcisers or oloolas. Oloola literally translates ‘the owner of marks’ or ‘mark cutter’ and refers to culture custodians who cut – tribal marks or genitals, male or female.
Muideen Sodiq worked as an oloola as did his father and his father before him. He started helping with cutting girls and boys when he was five years old and has cut about 300 girls since. At some point was cutting up to seven girls a day, but he said he’s now stopped.
‘Promiscuity and uncontrollable sexual curiosity’ are the main reasons people practice FGM according to Muideen. “A girl child that has not been cut will be highly prone to sex,” he said. “Such a girl may even resort to masturbation or look for a male to satisfy her.”
Tradition states that oloola’s use very specific items to perform the procedure; African black soap, camwood dye, table salt, palm oil, herbal mixtures, snail water, a parrot feather, a long fingernail and, the knife.
“I would ask the mother of the girl to put her baby on a platform, designed for the cutting purpose,” said Muideen as he explained the procedure. “I would then cut a little part of the girl’s clitoris..with the help of my long left thumbnail.”
“After I would rub our traditional herbal medicine on the vagina of the girl, made up of engine oil and some native concoctions. The medicine would be put on cotton wool and then applied on the vagina, Pampers would then be used to cover the girl up.”
Muideen said the cut would usually heal after three days. For the procedure there was ‘no fixed price’, but parents usually provide oloolas with gifts like fabric and shoes in addition to money.
Christiana Fayomi’s journey into cutting was different.
Her husband taught her how to cut a month after they got married and he didn’t come from a family of practitioners. When she used to cut girls (she said she has stopped) her tools were scissors, cotton wool, Dettol and potassium and according to her, it was once a ‘lucrative business.’
“We used to charge N250 for males and N40 for females,” she said. “Since the price of everything has increased the amount we charge has increased…it is now N2500 for both males and females.
Like Muideen she has cut over 100 girls and cited promiscuity as one of the myths that led her to believe in the practice.
Other cutters have also revealed that they have used blades, nails, mini axes and other sharp objects to perform the cut. Most of the girls cut by Muideen and Christiana were babies or very young, but there are always exceptions and some girls were cut much later.
“It was agony painful.”
Temitope Adesoji is one of the less than 2% of women in Osun that got cut at 15 years and above. She was cut by a medical professional at the insistence of an aunt she was living with at the time. Her aunt found out she had not been cut, and let her know that she had to be “for the sake of her future.” Years later she still has vivid memories of the incident.
“I can remember six people [holding me], then that woman,” she recalled. “ With that woman that done it for me, it was seven.”
“It was agony painful…I can’t explain about the pain, but the pain is too much for me.”
After the procedure, Temitope wasn’t given any pain medication and was told by the woman who cut her she wasn’t allowed to sit down so she couldn’t take any means of public transport home. Instead, she walked the whole way back to her house, confused and in tears.
After Costly found out she had been cut, she became depressed.
Her parents gave her all the details. She was eight days old, her grandmother had travelled down to Osun with a cutter to perform the procedure. She kept bleeding and so the cutter used snail water to stop it. They were sorry, they told her they’d only found out recently that FGM was a bad thing, that they had just been doing things the way they had always been done.
Costly then became angry, but not at her parents.
“Instead of me getting angry at them, I got angry at the procedure itself that this procedure should be stopped, it shouldn’t continue,” she said.
She poured her feelings about the procedure and what had happened to her into Value Female Network (VFN). Established in 2015, VFN is an NGO that seeks to empower women and protect their rights, with a special focus on eradicating FGM.
Costly and her team are big on raising awareness about and go into communities with high prevalence rates to talk to them about the complications and the dangers of the procedure.
But they also go a step further by bringing the practitioners of FGM into the fold.
“We got to understand that most of the perpetrators do it for monetary value, despite the fact that they know that it is bad,” she explained. “We took it upon ourselves to empower them.”
So far VFN has trained seven cutters in vocational skills, teaching them how to make a living away from cutting. One former cutter now works as a hairdresser, another makes beads, five work as farmers who have gone on to employ three other former cutters. It is a start they hope to build on.
“Most of my energy and time and passion has been towards ensuring that the procedure stops,” she said. “ That alone has given me a lot of joy, so instead of being depressed, I have found joy in seeing that some people have actually stopped this procedure, some babies are free, they are left whole.”
‘It is the greatest loss that is affecting me.’
Esther felt terrible when she found out about her circumcision and in addition, her doctor told her to save her life her baby would have to be induced.
Her daughter, born at 8 months, was stillborn.
“The doctor told me that I had been infected with some disease through the circumcision,” she recalled. “The doctor said maybe the environment where I was circumcised was not neat enough.”
Grieved by her loss she didn’t harbour anger towards her mother, instead, she resolved never to cut any of her own children in the future and to use her voice to speak out against the practice, first within her own family and later to others within the community.
“Our people [survivors] must be bold, they should have the courage to come out and share their experience with people so that others outside will know that truly it is real,” she said. “ The effect of FGM is real.”
Esther is part of a growing number of survivors who speak out about their experiences to deter others, and she believes awareness is key.
“To end FGM, they should educate our people more and more about the danger in it,” she said. “Another thing is to sacrifice ourselves in terms of money, our time and some other things that it may cause us to put an end to it.”
Years later, despite initial fears, she had other children but still grapples with the great loss she suffered.
“It’s still in my brain, I don’t think I can ever forget it until I die,” she said. “My mates that we experienced the same pregnancy together if I see their own children I will say that my own child would be like this.. if she was alive. It is the greatest loss that is affecting me.”
“If there is no demand, the supply will die”
‘Omo kin ku ni ‘owo oloola’ [children don’t die in the hands of the oloola] is a phrase often used by traditional practitioners, particularly those who are members of the Circumcision Descendants Association of Nigeria.
The Association, which in recent times has called on members like Muideen to stop cutting girls, is made up of cutters from across the country. Last year they held a seminar condemning FGM and calling on cutters to drop the knife. According to High Chief Abiola Ogundokun, the Chairman of the organization, several oloolas are unhappy with what has happened since.
“I believe that if you’re taking a job from somebody there must be alternative assistance,” he said. “If they want this thing to be totally eradicated, they must trust and believe the only solution is to carry the circumcisers.”
“I say with respect that when people are hungry and people bring something that would bring in money…they’ll be forced to go and do something”
For activists and campaigners in Osun, it’s cutting the demand for the procedure that will curb the issue.
“If there is no demand, the supply will die,” said Aduke Obelawo, a social worker and activist at the forefront of Osun’s battle against FGM.
Years ago, Aduke had one of her daughters cut, something she deeply regrets, nowadays she uses her other daughter who she didn’t get cut, as an example to others.
“You preach to their conscience, you let them know the effect to their children, they won’t go and start to look for circumcisers,” she said.
Activists are also keen to keep the conversation around FGM going and to tackle the silence around the subject.
“There’s a saying in Yoruba language, ‘When you fart in a public place, you keep it to yourself so nobody makes fun of you,’ that’s what FGM is to a lot of people in Osun state,” said Ademola Adebisi, the director of Value Reorientation For Community Enhancement (VARCE), an NGO that tackles FGM in Osun.
“Some of them doesn’t want to come out to talk about because they feel not too comfortable talking about it.”
“The level of the awareness is getting higher every day by day,” he said “People are seeing reasons, people are seeing the complications. We have survivors now coming out, and we have a lot of people that were not mutilated [sharing their stories].”
Despite the condemnation of FGM by the state governor Rauf Aregbesola, there has been criticism that the 2004 law is ineffective and is not properly being enforced. Since its inception, there hasn’t been a single prosecution.
Toyin Adelowokan, the Female Genital Mutilation Focal officer for the Osun Ministry of Health stressed that eradicating FGM is high on the states priority list, as well as a working committee made up of activists, faith leaders, police and cutters, there is a dedicated task force in some communities that oversea births and tries to ensure girls are not cut. Adelowokan said the state is hoping to expand the task force and is also working with the police to help better educate them about the law.
The 2016-2017 survey by the National Bureau of Statistics revealed that awareness of FGM is at an all-time high, 91.8% of women knew about the practice. 54.7% of women did not want the practice to continue and last year 16 communities across four local government areas committed to stopping the practice. As a result activists are confident Osun’s prevalence rate will drop substantially.
“Communities have declared that they are not doing it again,” said Costly. “Babies have not been circumcised so far in those communities and other communities too are joining that group.”
“FGM has a cultural basis, yes, but culture can be changed,” she continued. “In this country, we have seen a lot of cultures evolve over time, there was a time when people walked barefoot, but now there are modern means of transportation.”
“Culture has evolved over the years and I must say that FGM is not an exception.”
This story is told with support from Code For Africa.