ADO-EKITI, EKITI – Serah Igbekele, 26, lived in pain as a swollen boil under her genitals incessantly tormented her. The primary school teacher said she knew nothing about this swollen boil which appeared every three months.
When she went to the hospital for a pelvic examination, she learned that the swelling resulted from the mutilation of her genitals when she was younger and that she needed surgery to stop the swelling.
Female genital mutilation or FGM involves the partial or total removal of the external parts of a female’s genital organs for non-medical purposes. As of 2022, Nigeria ranked third globally in FGM cases, with an estimated 19.9 million women and girls as survivors.
Even worse, incidents of FGM are rife in Ekiti State, where Igbekele is from – a 2018 UNICEF study revealed that the prevalence rate in the state had reached an alarming 72%.
A harmful tradition
Mostly rooted in culture and tradition as a rite of passage to adulthood, its practitioners believe “narrowing the vagina opening causes women to have a low urge for sex until marriage,” said Damilola Ogundina, a medical doctor and sexual reproductive health advocate.
But the claim falls flat on its face when faced with data. Despite Ekiti State being at the forefront of this practice in the southwestern region of Nigeria, it is also leading in teenage pregnancy rates, according to a June 2022 UNICEF report.
Besides, the invasive procedure, mostly done without the victim’s consent, has other dire and life-threatening consequences for the women involved.
“This practice can result in painful sexual intercourse and complications during childbirth. Furthermore, infertility may arise from the injuries inflicted on reproductive organs such as the uterus or fallopian tubes,” Ogundina said.
FGM causes not only immediate pain and suffering but also long-term consequences – impacting sexual well-being, psychology, childbirth experiences, and fertility potential.
A network of survivors rises
Drawing strength from her traumatic experience, Igbekele wanted to save others from the same torture she went through, so she searched for means to help. Fortunately, a friend told her about an organisation called Balm in the Gilead Foundation or BIGIF.
After a few months of training and orientation, Igbekele was inducted into BIGIF’s Survivor Network, a community of women who have experienced FGM but are now working to break the circle through advocacy in their communities.
BIGIF supports members of the survivor networks to carry out advocacy and report cases of FGM. According to Igbekele, they use the knowledge gained from BIGIF as tools in their advocacy.
And as they go out to advocate for the end of FGM, they look out for women like themselves, who have been mutilated, to join the survival network.
Through the network, Igbekele has reached over 100 women and girls with her message and also convinced her mother to be involved in advocacy in their community.
“I have been using my own experience in the community, and my mother is now actively involved in the sensitisation,” she said.
BIGIF ensures it carries the community along.
“What we do first is to pay a visit to the Baales and Obas (community leaders in Yoruba land) and inform them of our mission to fight FGM,” said Oluwadamilola Abe, the monitoring and evaluation officer at the foundation.
The survivor network comprises 40 women, now creating awareness and using their experience as survivors to act as foot soldiers to end FGM. Abe said BIGIF visits schools, churches, markets, and public places and runs house-to-house campaigns.
And when an FGM survivor is identified, the group first gives them psycho-social support before taking them through a process where they understand what happened to them and the consequences of it.
“Sometimes, because they have gone through this process, they are expected to pass it down,” Abe said.
BIGIF; Born out of a personal experience
Tuminimu Adedeji was mutilated when she was a child and grew up in a rough neighbourhood where women were marginalised and treated as second fiddle, and she swore to help end that.
The Balm in Gilead Foundation was her response to that. Registered in 2013, the organisation stands “against every cultural and traditional right affecting women in the society through sensitisation and advocacy,” Adedeji said.
BIGIF operates in Ekiti, Ondo, and Osun states in southwest Nigeria and Kwara State in the north-central, focusing on reducing gender-based violence. It has eight staff and over 300 volunteers scattered across the states.
They carry out advocacy and sensitisation through street walks, market visits, grassroots engagements, intervention in the local community, and social media, sometimes collaborating with government parastatals.
The nonprofit also runs a 30-minute phone-in programme on Voice 89.9 FM in Ado-Ekiti, where issues affecting women, including FGM, are discussed.
But even as BIGIF has made progress in its push against FGM, issues persist. Ignorance and suspicion in some communities are two of them.
“People see us as political bodies that must offer money before we can engage or sensitise them,” Adedeji said, adding that some survivors are sometimes afraid and hesitant to expose some of the perpetrators of the act because of blood and family ties.
“Older relatives in the families (grandma, grand-aunts) are the ones perpetrating the act, which makes it hard for the younger informed relatives to report their family as perpetrators to avoid inter-family conflicts,” she said.
But she takes solace from the strength some advocates have shown. For example, Mrs Iyanuoluwa Ojuolape, a trader and mother of two, always has her baby strapped on her back as she juggles between customers. Still, she doesn’t fail to jump on every opportunity she has to preach against FGM.
“My community believes that practising FGM promotes women’s faithfulness to their husbands, and moving with the knowledge (gained from the network) that I have; I decided not to have my daughters circumcised,” She said.
Ojualape added that outside sensitising her friends, she has visited her hometown, Omuo-Ekiti, “to educate and create awareness about the harmful cutting in the clitoris.”
This story was produced with the support of Nigeria Health Watch through the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.