By Morenike Taire & Funmi Ajumobi
The world marked the 2021 annual International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) within the context of COVID-19 under the theme, ‘No Time for Global Inaction: Unite, Fund and Act to End Female Genital Mutilation’.
On the occasion, Dr Antor Odu Ndep, a public health practitioner, researcher and a Senior Lecturer at University of Calabar, in this interview, speaks about her unforgettable experience of circumcision twice and the excruciating pain of losing her sister to the same process.
Majority of our cultures perform FGM as a ceremony to welcome a girl into womanhood. It used to happen in my grandmother’s time. She told me the female genital cutting ceremony was a time to show that you were a high class woman, seen as higher than other women. If a girl that is not circumcised is talking, you can interrupt and that girl will have nothing to say again.
If she tries talking, you can look at her and tell her, ‘This one that has clitoris, you have the gut to talk to me?’ Female genital cutting is painted as something you have to do to belong in order to be high in the society. Over time, however, that aspect of you belonging to a different class wore off because people now start going to school and could not get the time to spend in the circumcision home. So they started doing it during holiday.
I was living in Cameroun at that time. I came home (Cross River) on holiday and that was the best opportunity to cut me because they didn’t know when they would see me again. I was eight years old and my junior sister was three at that time and few of my cousins that were around were also cut. They gathered about seven of us at the backyard and had us cut. My mummy, as the last born of the family, had no say in the arrangement. The first born was the one who proposed to cut all the little girls in the family and she was old enough to be her mother. So, she had no say but was just informed about it and she was also a survivor.
That was the first time that cutting led to a death in the family. My three years old sister died five days later. She bled to death. She was a happy young child who was healthy. After the cut, her wound was almost beginning to heal and it had started itching her as a sign that it was healing up but, as a three years old girl, she just scratched the place and the blood that gushed out was like it was coming from her heart. As the heart was pumping, that was how it was gushing out. That time, we had just a dispensary in my village and before they could get her into the dispensary, she was dead.
My pain was different because after a week, they said my clitoris was growing back and they had to cut me twice and, as the fighter among all of us because I have big body from my young age, they had to bring in my cousins to sit on my chest and others sat on my two legs and some were holding my hands. To this day, I’m not close to those cousins because there is an accusation on the pain in my life. I recognize them as my cousins. We greet, talk but I did not nurture a relationship with them.
Talking about myself now, I carried the death of my younger sister in my heart for a long time and I still do because she would have been a grown up woman probably in her late 40s now but her life was cut short over something that has no relevance to her life.
Sex only in the head
I grew up like that, got married and the sexual part of me which I had very elaborate idea of how to enjoy sex was all in my head and not in my body.
READ ALSO: FGM: It’s attack on our sexuality, stakeholders cry out
The way my mind thinks about it is not the same way my body is responding to it. I am such a person that communicates and had to communicate with my partner about my situation which I told him he has to be more concerned about me for me to enjoy my sexuality. There are millions of women who are not bold to have such communication with their partners and so are living in silence, suffering.
That experience I had through genital mutilation is part of what brought me into public health. I believe in working with families and communities to address female genital mutilation, but from the point of view of the community and not from our point of view as scientists because we are dealing with the cultural thing.
A lot of time in translating a name from our local languages into foreign languages, we remove a lot of meaning from it. There was an international organization when I was in secondary school that came to talk about female genital mutilation. In my dialect, we call it ‘moninkim’ which is not equal to female genital mutilation. ‘Moninkim’ is a whole institution with so many other things attached to it and part of it is the cutting. Then, what WHO did was to call everything female genital mutilation.
When they came, they chose Saturdays in agrarian community to teach the women and Saturday was the only day children sit with their parents to help them. Already they were not happy to listen to what they were saying. Then the UN people came with a white man, doctors and a nurse who is an Igbo woman born and raised in Lagos. A lot of people don’t understand why I am underlining that. An Igbo woman brought to Cross River State to address a cultural issue will not have the understanding I have that moninkim is not female cutting. What our women were hearing was that they did not know how to raise their daughters.
Moninkim is an institution where a girl has information on transiting to a woman. They are taught how to be women, how to be mothers, how to be wise, how to carry themselves in the society where men think all things are theirs, how to be able to get what you want from a man without him thinking you are manipulating him. All these things are part of the education that girls get during period of circumcision. So saying that moninkim is bad, then all those things there would be thrown away. That was how they left because they weren’t making any inroad and I knew something had to be done.
When I met Safehaven Development Initiative, an NGO working on how female genital mutilation at the grassroots level will come to an end, I advised the Executive Director, Mrs Margaret Onah, on the best way to go about it to have result. The whole community was signing up to eliminate the cutting but not to eliminate moninkim. They agreed that it is the cutting that needed to be eliminated and not the institution of moninkim because the institution is tied into traditional marriage.
We come out as moninkim to dance; which is the first step to show ourselves as brides. So, if we say we should eliminate moninkim, then you are eroding a whole part of that culture. We like to see ourselves well dressed and come out as brides that have been trained. I will not want my daughter to miss that part of our culture during her traditional marriage but never to be cut.
We lost that little girl and my father decided to take matter into his hands and, subsequently, my younger sisters that came after my late sister were not cut. All of us in our age group were cut when we were little girls and we have decided that our daughters will not be cut. When it is time for them to get married, we are going to put them in the moninkim house to get that education at the traditional level. It is by making a room in your house and preparing a throne for her. It is expensive because girls can be put there for as long as six months.
In Calabar you hear the term ‘fattening room’, but it is not the right name for it. That was the derogatory name that the white man gave the culture. Of course, when you keep a young girl for six months without working and well fed, massaged and pampered, she is going to put on some weight but it is not ‘fattening room’ but rather a preparatory room. It is where we are prepared for marriage.
Through the Safehaven Development Initiative, we have entered several communities in our clan. There are some communities that, during our traditional new year or new year festival, girls who may have been cut in the past come out to dance for the whole community but for the past five years that Safehaven Development Initiative has been working there, girls still go into that bridal preparatory room, but no cutting happens and they still come out and dance because the kings and everyone in the clan have signed a memorandum that they are not going to support anyone who cuts her girl.
We educate our communities that they don’t have to cut a girl in order to be able to celebrate her. If their little girls go to school and graduate, they can celebrate them. If she is a farmer and she has a good harvest, they can celebrate and honour her too. It is all about celebrating a woman but they don’t have to hurt the woman in order to celebrate her because cutting and then turning around to celebrate her does not make sense. We are eliminating the cut but we insist that our girls must be celebrated by their families.
Vanguard News Nigeria
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