In Nigeria, by extension, Africa, when things are sacred, we don’t question them. This is not because we don’t have questions, but because we were raised to believe that some questions must not be asked. We were raised believing that the status quo does not change. Sometimes, asking questions is even a tall order – there are some things we dare not talk about. Subconsciously, our minds have to accept that we need not think about them, let alone talk, in secret or in public.
Social norms are not just set of acts or thoughts that have become engraved in the hearts of people, they also find their ways into becoming a strong part of societal culture. Everywhere around the world, social norms are propelled and uphold by individuals who have far-reaching influence in the society. They not only determine what happens when norms are questioned, they are always on guard to ensure that no one works to change them.
One of the many acts that have found a deep root in our social fabric is Female Genital Mutilation and Cutting (FGM/C). FGM/C is the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or any other injury to the female genital organ for non-medical reasons. Some people erroneously refer to it as female circumcision. FGM/C is an age long activity that is carried out across Nigeria. It is widely practised, yet, less discussed. It is happening under everyone’s nose, but no one is talking. This could be because we have come to accept it as a part of our lives or simply because we don’t have new information. After all, information is power.
In Nigeria, pop culture has driven many youth to believe that some practices are no longer in existence. This belief is not formed by the facts and figures they have at their disposal but because TVs and the new media (which is now our trusted companion) are not saying anything about it. For the millennials, if it’s not on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or any other social media platform, then it’s not happening.
On the other hand, the drivers of Female Genital Mutilation and Cutting (FGM/C) – grandmothers and mother-in-laws continue to deepen the culture, from generation to generation. They carefully deliver their messages to suit intent and purpose and making it hard for the younger generation to sway the conversation.
To buttress the resolve and dexterity by which the drivers communicate, they have since pushed the medicalisation of FGMC into limelight. They have argued, at various points, that if cutting is harmful because it’s done by traditional birth attendants/circumcisers who may not have the needed tools and skills to cut without pain, then nurses would do it better. They have also argued in favour of “massaging the genital area”, which is a form of Type IV FGMC, based on World Health Organisation classification. After all, they argue, “massaging” does not hurt and it is not ‘’cutting’’ or ‘’mutilation’’. Unfortunately, “Massaging”: involves the application of petroleum jelly / herbal concoctions/ Mentholatum/or hot water to the clitoris and pushing it back into the body or making it fall off.
As it is, adherents of FGM/C have developed mechanisms that have survived over the time and it rides on the culture of silence.
Because issues surrounding FGM/C are rarely discussed in public , survivors have learnt to live “happily” with their tales, and they have carried on as if nothing was wrong. This has also made it seem like there is no harm in Female Genital Mutilation and Cutting (FGM/C), after all no one has come forth to lament.
In Nigeria, from observation, it is not a common place for children (younger people in general) to question what the elders are doing – it is a taboo . They have to flow with the tide – for better or for worse. However, generational change has caused many young people to find their voices and raise them, politely. Many young adults have formed coalitions, at every turn, to speak up for others – to have one voice, a generational voice that cannot be broken.
One of these many coalitions is the Young Social Media Advocate team of the UNFPA-UNICEF Joint programme campaigning to accelerate the abandonment of Female Genital Mutilation and Cutting by combining the use of the new media with off-line advocacy. Trained under the joint programme by UNICEF_Nigeria in 2015, this team of young Nigerians have combined well with stakeholders in 5 states of the federation to ensure that the goal of the joint programme is achieved. They are campaigning under the name #endcuttinggirls.
Armed with the knowledge that the abandonment would be driven by young couples and the younger generation, the social media advocates tapped into the power of social media platforms to drive the much needed conversation. Using platforms like Twitter for weekly discussion and Facebook for sharing their messages, they also flowed with the tide and kept with the pace of changing social media dynamics. Through this, they tapped into the pictorial feature of the popular platform called Instagram.
With goals clearly marked, the team picked an Instagram contest to break the norm and install a new order that is now “wavy’’ amongst a growing community of Instagram users. The #endcuttinggirls #frownchallenge has been able to give people from far and wide the opportunity to air their opinion on Female Genital Mutilation and Cutting. Riding on the wave of new information made available every week through the Twitter conference, young people are now armed with the facts to construct their opinion on an important issue that affects them.
The #frownchallenge has also given the younger generation the impetus to ask questions and seek clarification on the reasons given for Female Genital Mutilation and Cutting. They have been able to see the mythical reasons given, determine the inconsistencies in the messages of the drivers and are now bold enough to report and educate others.
The #frownchallenge, which is now in its 5th month of the first season (July 2017 to June 2018), draws more people to the discussion every day. The steady increase in number of monthly participants attest to the acceptance and the courage it has given people to come forth and speak. It is now a trusted platform for survivors to share their experiences and a hub for advocates to join forces with everyone.
It is no gainsaying that the #frownchallenge has also broken territorial/geographical barriers as the September edition recorded a participant from the United States. It has also drawn players from the United Kingdom to the amazing work the Nigeria #endcuttinggirls advocates are doing with support from UNICEF_Nigeria.
One might want to ask, how this online success contribute to the off-line fight and the answer is simple. The silence has been broken and everyone is now asking in their immediate environment why FGMC should while they also have facts to make superior arguments on why we must #endcuttinggirls in this generation, together.