Costly Aderibigbe was already 24- years- old when she learnt a secret that was to change her life permanently. As a medical student at the Ladoke Adetola University of Technology in Ogbomoso Osun state, she had developed a passion to campaign against the widespread practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in her state.
With a few friends, she stormed communities and knocked on doors to tell the mostly rural audience the evil of genital mutilation, the medical and social implications and the life-long psychological trauma the victims may live through.
If Costly had expected a hero’s reception, she was completely wrong. Most of the doors she knocked shut hard in her face, dirty words were hurled at her through the window and a woman promised to bathe her in hot water.
The United Nations (UN) has declared every February 6 as the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation. The aim is to classify the FGM as a violation of the human rights of young girls who are subjected to the practice describing it as a gender-based violence.
The UN estimates that at least 200 million girls and women alive today have had their genitals mutilated causing them a life-long suffering. In a statement released to mark the day, the UN said “tens of millions of girls are still at risk of being mutilated by 2030.”
“On the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, we reaffirm our commitment to end this violation of human rights, so that the tens of millions of girls who are still at risk of being mutilated by 2030 do not experience the same suffering as Mary.
“This effort is especially critical because female genital mutilation leads to long-term physical, psychological and social consequences. It violates women’s rights to sexual and reproductive health, physical integrity, non-discrimination and freedom from cruel or degrading treatment. It is also a violation of medical ethics: Female genital mutilation is never safe, no matter who carries it out or how clean the venue is,” the statement read.
In Nigeria, according to a National Demographic Health Survey, at least five states including, Osun, Ebonyi, Imo, Ekiti and Oyo state top the list where FGM is still being practiced with each recording over 50 percent ratings.
Unfortunately, many women are not aware they have been genitally mutilated until much later in life, usually with devastating consequences. Costly was one of them.
“I organized a group of likeminded young people also in the medical field, and knowing the complications based on our medical knowledge we wanted to make a difference and then started a campaign. We used behavioral communication change methods but we got to a point where most of the communities we went to, they always ask if we are circumcised that they are very sure we are all circumcised. And some of us will reply saying “no that terrible act? Our parents will never do such to us,” Costly recalled
But she was soon to discover a secret, so dark it was shielded from her by her parents and it required boldness from her to pry it out. Today, three years after learning this secret, it takes efforts for her to speak about it.
Costly: “It got to a point that I realized that I should take a bold step and even ask my parents. So, I decided to travel home after an FGM campaign. On the second day I went to my house, luckily my grandmother was also around and then I asked them the big question.”
The story they told her was heartbreaking. “ They told me I was also genitally mutilated, and they had to agree to the act because they didn’t know it was wrong then, even though they didn’t see need for it, there was so much pressure from everyone because it’s a normal community practice.
“They also told me how it was difficult to stop the bleeding and they thought I was going to die. Based on everything that I have done, seen and heard, it dawned me that I had also undergone this horrible practice at a point in my life when I couldn’t even speak for myself and then the fear of what would happen to me suddenly came”
Because she came from an educated background, Costly did not think such “terrible act” could be perpetuated by her educated parents. She also didn’t bother to check if anything was different about her. But there were always signs, though subtle and sometimes seeming inconsequential.
“I don’t like to talk about this, but my friends like to talk about female sexuality and desires and during such discussions I can’t relate or perceive what they say they feel. I can’t relate to what they talk about or what they are saying. Irrespective of that, I feel like what has happened has happened.”
The first consequence of this discovery was depression and after she pulled out of that, a renewed passion to ensure “no other child suffers the same fate.” Her campaign which had been limited to her small community began to take on a national outlook.
“Even as a medical student, I never really paid attention to my genital areas. I kept thinking about those things I spoke about during campaigns and hoped I wouldn’t go through any of them.
“It was a very hard time for me during the period I found out about my circumcision and at a point I was almost getting depressed and almost wanted to relent in my campaigns, but I just caught up in the fear. I was getting bothered about the complications, I even began to connect the dots and realize that some things happening to me could have been because of the procedure and all that.
But I had to tell myself that irrespective of what has happened to me, that shouldn’t happen to any other girl out there. Nobody deserves to go through it. I may not be able to change the world but little by little in my community I’m going to ensure that this procedure comes to an end. Instead of being depressed, that was when I even increased the rate of advocacy being done in Osun state,” she said.
Bursting the Myth
One of the reasons FGM prevails in many societies is the myth attached to it, with her education and passion, Costly is fighting to debunk these myths. “If you don’t want a girl to be promiscuous, you bring the child up properly and show the child love and relate with the child. A lot of research has shown that between those that were cut and weren’t cut, the ones that are cut proved to be more promiscuous. Mostly because they may have sex with one person and they don’t know what it feels like and want to try another person and if they are not still satisfied they want to try again which is really wrong.
“Another myth people talk about is if the head of a baby should touch the clitoris during childbirth that the baby would die if it’s uncircumcised. When they talk about these you’d wonder that in this present world people still believe such myths. It’s so bad that even during campaigns we have to sit down one on one to really get them convinced. Also, the people believe that the clitoris will grow as the child grows to almost compete with the size of a penis at a particular age, so children should cut it off while they are young.”
Costly got on the United Nations Youth Advisory Panel in 2018 where she has helped mobilize young people to respond to the scourge of FGM in their communities. In that capacity, she has helped cutters who renounced the practice find a new life and livelihood.
“We came up with the idea of giving them alternate sources of income and we worked with eight traditional cutters who declared that they were no longer circumcising, and we organized an empowerment program for them. We taught them about fisheries, we gave some fertilizers.
Most of them do this already as a side work not on a large scale, so we supported them by growing their knowledge, giving fertilizers and we invited people that were able to sit and talk with them about product branding. We empowered three of them and those three empowered the others and now the eight of them are doing very fine in their respective fields. Few are into fisheries while the rest are into farming and they have market for their products already,” she said.
Costly is also looking into the future and recruiting the next generation of advocates with the aim of ending FGM by 2030. “Looking at the SDGs we are hoping to achieve by 2030, the generation of people that will be married and have children by then will the young people and adolescents of now.
“We really need to look at innovative approaches to ending this. Its not very difficult but we need so much effort to get the older adults to change but I tell you that if you’re able to change the young ones early enough and they have that information and they are convinced, they are able to take good decisions against FGM.”