Columnists Lekan Oguntoyinbo Opinion

New law in Nigeria may spur giant leap for women’s rights

Many years ago, as a single man in my early 30s, I dated a svelte and attractive West African woman. I liked her from the moment I laid eyes on her. Janet (not her real name) was soft-spoken, well mannered, well educated, hard working and quite easy on the eyes.

But any visions of a future with Janet vanished shortly after we started dating.

As an infant, Janet had had her genitals circumcised — and as an adult, she paid dearly. Although she said sex occasionally gave her pleasure, most of the time it was a grueling and excruciatingly painful experience that left her crying for a long time.

I thought about Janet recently when the barbaric practice of female circumcision — more commonly known as female genital mutilation — made big headlines again recently.

Late in May, the Nigerian government took the bold step of outlawing the ancient practice, which was intended to keep women chaste. By circumcising females, the thinking went, they would not enjoy sex and would be less likely to have sex before marriage or to have extramarital relations. Defeated incumbent Goodluck Jonathan signed the act into law before stepping down as Nigeria’s president last month.

Some day, historians may see this law as the most important legacy of Jonathan’s otherwise disappointing presidency.

Often mischaracterized as an Islamic practice, female genital mutilation has absolutely no health benefits. According to the United Nations, it typically involves the partial or total removal of external female genitalia. It often is performed by a traditional village “surgeon” with the use of a crude razor blade. Sometimes the girls are infants; other times, they’re prepubescent girls.

It is physically and emotionally harmful and can lead to complications, such as severe bleeding and problems urinating. It also can lead to cysts, infections,infertility, complications in childbirth and a heightened risk of newborn deaths.

The World Health Organization says about 125 million women and girls have been subjected to female genital mutilation, mostly in Africa, the Middle East and in western countries with large immigrant populations from those areas.

By passing this law, the Nigerian government has struck a big blow for women’s rights in the developing world. While that’s a laudable step, however, it is still just a step. Child marriage remains a scourge in much of Africa.

According to the International Center for Research on Women, of the 20 countries considered hot spots for child brides, 14 are in Africa. The others include countries like India and Bangladesh. Under this practice, girls as young as 9 are married off to adult men. Some of these girls start having babies shortly after marriage and suffer lifelong health issues as a result.

A few weeks ago, a Kenyan lawyer announced plans to approach Barack and Michelle Obama about marrying their 16-year-old daughter, Malia. The lawyer, Felix Kiprono, said he had his eye on Malia since she was 10. He has offered to pay a bride price of 50 cows, 70 sheep and 30 goats for her hand.

Most people would argue that a man who ogles a 10-year-old girl is a pedophile. But it is common practice throughout much of the developing world.

Nigeria is Africa’s political, economic and cultural giant. Despite its many troubles as a nation, it’s always been a major force in leading change on the continent and throughout the region.

By criminalizing female genital mutilation, Nigeria has taken a big step for women’s liberation. Attacking child marriages would be another giant step in protecting women’s rights and ensuring that there are fewer Janets suffering in silence.

Wave columnist Lekan Oguntoyinbo is an independent journalist. Contact him at oguntoyinbo@gmail.com.