It’s a cold winter’s night in a little village called Igueden in the Edo state of Southwestern Nigeria where a young girl lies awake, within the dimly-lit red mud walls of her home, dreading dawn.
She recalls a conversation with her mother years ago about this day. The vivid picture her mother had painted about her own experience had left her aghast at the pain and torture she had endured.
Tomorrow, it would be her turn. She was turning 12, and village tradition dictated she be ‘cleansed’ too.
“Today, you become a real woman,” says the young girl’s 90-year-old grandmother as she awakens.
Dawn has come too soon.
With great trepidation, she follows the elderly woman to the hut of the village doctor where 10 other girls are waiting for the same inevitable fate.
The older women in the village are singing and ululating. Inside, the young girl’s friends reciprocate the look of fear in her eyes. As is customary, her mother is not allowed to be around her. No mother can hear the pain of a daughter, nor fight to help her.
As each girl is ushered in, a cacophony of piercing screams follows at decibels louder than the women singing to purposely drown out the cries of pain.
In the middle of the doctor’s room is a cold round slab, smeared with blood. He motions for her to sit on the stone.
It feels wet. Two women proceed to tie a cloth around her eyes while another is stuffed into her mouth so she can bite into it.
Before being blind-folded, she just about glimpses a sharp, bloody metal object in the doctor’s hand. Fear consumes her as the women firmly hold her legs and arms to the ground.
In the background, the singing continues. No one hears the young girl’s muffled screams. She feels an indescribable pain between her legs.
And just like that, Eki Ehizogie went from being a child to ‘a real woman’, 30 years ago.
The Naked Truth
There is an estimated 125 million girls and women globally living with the effects of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), reported to be most widespread in Africa and the Middle East.
In a historic move, the Nigerian government has outlawed the practice of FGM. The law, passed by the senate on May 5, a gesture by outgoing president Goodluck Jonathan, bans the practice involving removing a part or all of a girl’s outer sexual organs.
The World Health Organization describes the practice the following ways: Type I (clitoridectomy), which is removal of part or all of the clitoris; Type II (excision), the most common form which is removal of the clitoris and part or all of the labia minora (the inner vaginal lips); and Type III (infibulation), which is removal of the external genitalia and stitching of the vaginal opening.
A very small opening is left, about the diameter of a pencil. The practice attempts to control a woman’s sexuality, and under the pretext of purity, modesty and aesthetics. It is usually initiated and carried out by women, who see it as honor, and who fear that failing to have their daughters and granddaughters cut will socially exclude them.
The Woman Named Eki
“The pain I felt can’t be described; thinking of it brings cold shivers inside me. I was circumcised, I felt incomplete and completely out of control,” says Ehizogie.
“My life took a complete turn, I felt wasted and hopeless.”
The lasting effects of that day live with her forever.
“I do not feel like a real woman, I feel like I was robbed of something that can never be returned to me.”
The Nigerian Reality
Nigeria reportedly has the highest number of FGM cases. The country accounts for about a quarter of circumcised females worldwide, according to UNICEF. The damaging effects of this procedure for the women may be infertility, maternal death, infections and loss of sexual pleasure.
‘I Felt Like A Freak’
For women like Ehizogie, the ban is certainly good news.
“I never thought this day would come. There are thousands of women in remote areas living with similar experiences as me and hopefully with this new law, many innocent girls can be spared this fate,” she says.
Ehizogie’s teenage years were very difficult. She spent most of her time alone, intimidated at the thought of getting close to a boy.
“When I was in boarding school, I saw the other girls in the shower and I knew immediately that I was different. I felt like a freak,” she recalls.
Her’s was a Type II circumcision. Her first sexual experience conjured up memories of that fateful day.
“I felt an excruciating pain which almost made me pass out, I told him to stop immediately as I could not handle the pain. I thought to myself I never want to be with anyone again,” says Ehizogie.
She recalls her village elders calling FGM a legal rite of passage; any mother refusing to let her daughter undergo the procedure was in danger of breaking the law.
Ehizogie has felt different for a long time. She has gone through periods of extreme depression, which have led to suicide attempts.
It was immediately after her first failed sexual experience. The event was a culmination of all the self-hate and negativity she had for years.
“I did not want to live anymore, I could only see one way out,” she admits. She overdosed on painkillers but was discovered on the floor by chance by a neighbor. She was rushed in time to the clinic. Her recovery involved a combination of therapy and support from a new community she found at church.
“The mental consequences after FGM include feelings of incompleteness, fear, inferiority and suppression. Women report chronic irritability and nightmares. They have a higher risk for psychiatric and psychosomatic diseases,” says Dr Asamoah, a clinical psychologist with Lister Hospital.
The move by Nigeria has sparked sentiments from around the world.
“Global experience tells us that ultimately, it’s through changing attitudes, not just laws, that we will end FGM,” said Tanya Barron, chief executive of children’s charity Plan International, in a Reuters report.
Those attitudes are deep-rooted in rural communities. The pressure to be accepted is the main reason women undergo FGM.
“I was told by my grandmother that I was not a real woman until I had been circumcised and that is the only time I will find a husband and not bring shame to the family,” says Ehizogie, who is married with two children. These days, she works in communities providing support for girls with similar experiences.
“The belief that a woman has to be a virgin before she is married to a man in local communities has also led to the increase in FGM,” avers Ehizogie.
Hope and vindication
According to UNICEF, approximately two million girls are mutilated every year. Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan account for 75% of all cases. The battle to end this practice has raged for years. The United Nations has declared FGM is a violation of the rights of girls and women.
For Ehizogie, the news about its ban brings hope and in a small way, vindication – though delayed – for the atrocity she suffered as a child.