On a long road to eliminating a bad institution; Nigeria bans Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)

By Sania Faizi, Staff Writer


Last week, the Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan signed a bill that criminalises Female Genital Mutilation (FGM); a practice that is known to have impacted 19.9 million girls and women in Nigeria.

FGM involves procedures performed on females that cut or alter their external genitalia for non-medical reasons. There are no health benefits of FGM and instead it carries a range of risk factors. FGM tampers with the normal functioning of female bodies and can lead to bleeding, ulcers, and infections. Furthermore, the potential long-term consequences of this practice can be as dire as infertility, childbirth complications, as well as repeated invasive procedures before and after conception and child birth.

FGM is internationally recognised as a violation of human rights of girls and women. Because FGM is more commonly performed on young girls, it is also a huge violation of the rights of children. At the same time it is also a violation of an individual’s right to be free from torture and inhumane or degrading treatment.  It is not just Nigerian women that are subjected to this grave violation of their rights. According to World Health Organisation (WHO), women and girls in excess of 125 million have undergone some form of FGM across 29 countries, mostly concentrated in Africa and the Middle East. 

Being the most populous country in Africa, and therefore having the highest absolute number of FGM occurrences, makes the recent legal change in Nigeria a significantly important one. Nigeria is the second largest contributor to the under-five and maternal mortality rate in the world; in Nigeria a woman’s chance of dying from pregnancy and childbirth is 1 in 13, and a significant number of new-born deaths occur in the first week of life due to complications during pregnancy and delivery (UNICEF). Severe gaps in coverage and quality of health and reproductive care suggest that the current health system is unlikely to be able to address FGM induced complications during childbirth. Therefore, if the ban on FGM translates into reduced FGM occurrences, not only could many women and children be saved but more healthcare resources could be freed up to address unforeseen complications during childbirth and to strengthen antenatal and postpartum care.

However, despite being a significant step in the right direction, the recent ban on FGM is not so straightforward in eliminating this harmful practice from Nigeria, at least not in the short-run. The Equilibrium of the Game Approach, a branch of New Institutional Economics that aims to understand the formation and persistence of institutions, defines an institution as a self-sustaining system of shared beliefs which converges expectations and coordinates individual actions. These shared beliefs develop in the minds of individuals and are realised, reinforced, and reproduced when individual actions are observed and repeated interactions occur between individuals over time.

FGM is closely associated with beliefs about what is acceptable sexual behaviour in terms of premarital virginity and marital fidelity, as well as ideas of female ‘modesty’ and ‘purity’. Therefore, FGM as a norm or social convention converges expectations of individuals and coordinates their actions, allowing it to be classified as an ‘institution’. As a result of repeated interactions throughout history, the ideas that form the basis of FGM have become a socially constructed reality which perpetuates and reproduces beliefs that are already held in the minds of individuals. When an institution like FGM becomes so entrenched in society, even individuals that dislike the institution or are victimised by it, often find it difficult to abandon it. This is because they fear what others may do to them if they deviate from the norm or even so much as associate themselves with someone who has deviated from the norm. This form of meta-punishment makes it very difficult to eliminate a bad institution like FGM.  

The cultural inertia surrounding FGM is evident in the prevalence and persistence of the practice in many countries despite significant international action and condemnation. So too is its prevalence in Egypt where the practice is in fact outlawed. Although legal change has the potential of altering the morals of a society gradually overtime, this can only really occur if individuals begin to accept the legal change as a true representation of their beliefs.  Therefore, alongside enforcing legal changes against FGM, it is important to invest in measures that generate momentum for a shift in social attitudes and beliefs about FGM, and more broadly about women and their role in society.