FGM as SDG Target: Are Social Norms Clogs in the Wheel of Progress?

In Nigeria, it is observed that many of the things we engage in, with roots in our early days, have been on hearsays. Our attitudes, beliefs, and “traditions” have been shaped by these hearsays that generations on generations continue to pass down these thoughts without verification. Many other times, younger people who are curious ask questions about these things and the most we have done is to either shut them down or give them outright lies as answers. These lies would then be passed down through these generations till it become the truth and a part of our lives.

From Ihiala to Ipao, Okeiho to Orlu, Iyanfoworogi to the Izzis of Ebonyi, social norms have continued to play major roles in everyday lives of the people either for good or bad; with established truths or otherwise, our societies are littered with varying forms of social norms.

Without mincing words, social norms have helped to keep many others in check, helped to monitor and discourage some activities that could have torn our communities apart. While these norms are encouraged to be kept, we must continue to dissuade people from holding on to social norms that have thrived on myths, misconceptions and outright lies.

One of such social norms, without any iota of good for the people, is FGM. FGM, Female Genital Mutilation, erroneously called Female Circumcision is the partial or total removal of the external genitalia for no medical reason. This 1997 definition by the World Health Organization (WHO) described and categorised FGM into 4 based on methodology, tools and degree of cutting.

The mutilation of the genitalia which is done for no medical reason poses a great health danger to girls and women. It is on record that more than 200 million girls and women have undergone one or more forms of FGM. This enormous number should scare everyone because these girls and women are with and around us. While FGM predates both Islam and Christianity with no backing in the major scriptures, purveyors of FGM in Nigeria have been able to craft a religiously themed message that drives FGM. It is no longer news that religious sentiments sell faster in Nigeria and has since been a vehicle for moving issues around in Nigeria, with no regard for volatility or importance of the sector(s).

Understanding the motives and reasons for carrying out FGM in different communities in Nigeria has been a pivotal point at the start of all campaigns to put an end to this scourge. It has showed that while the goal is the same, the motivations are different. For some, it’s to ensure that the clitoris doesn’t grow as much as the penis. Others have said it is to ensure that the clitoris doesn’t kill the baby at birth through contact and others said it’s to curb promiscuity. All these reasons have been confirmed to be lies and suggested the truth about the practice. The goal of every driver of FGM, regardless of what they have said, is to control the sexuality of women and help men claim superiority.

To change social norms, it is a long process that needs the commitment of everyone. Such process must also be all-encompassing. It must provide a big space to accept all players in the system. This knowledge has been employed in programmes and projects that targeted cutting communities.

One of these projects is the United Nations Joint Programme on ending FGM. The UNJP has been described as the single largest project on FGM around the world. It has helped, in collaboration with other efforts, to reduce prevalence and seeks to halt incidences of FGM.

How Long Now?

These achievements are inspiring and it’s like a pat on the back for all actors in the development world working to eliminate the practice of FGM in Nigeria and around the world. The numbers, according to MICS 16/17 are changing. While in some places, they go down, in others they move back up. These movements are expected and can only get better when we look at these numbers critically.   

It is also critical to ensure that these change in numbers are reported without emotions but with clarity and eagle eye focus on the ball.

One of the important questions one would like to ask is despite all, why are the numbers not encouraging?  

The number of incidences of FGM in places like Ekiti State, for girls in the 0-14 age group, can be linked to the number of people who still feel that FGM should be sustained even a decrease (in % of those who want FGM to continue) from 50% in 2011 to 31.4% in 2017 (MICS figure).

In Nigeria, people continue to chide the process of change yet sing the songs for better life every time. It has been generally understood that if the heavy hands of law are used, the practise of FGM might go underground. This will hamper data gathering, cause more outcasts in communities, divide people and give a different colouration to the entire process. This does not mean that the laws should be kept on the shelves without use as ignorance of the law will not be excusable.

It will also increase the incidence of FGM without any concrete data to back it as its practice would not be in silence and under enormous secrecy. This will take the air out of everyone.

The fight, as I like to call it, against FGM is a long one; like every other social norm and social change process. Sometimes, it takes years to achieve this. It has been seen in the MDGs and its better version, SDGs.


To put an end to this, as a target of the SDGs, we must ensure that we do not ignore the social construct of the people. This must be done as part of the entire process for eliminating FGM and not as a stand-alone process.

The social construct of the people, usually backed by Cultural Relativism which argues that there are no universal human rights and that rights are culture-specific and culturally determined. This belief literally suggests that even if the whole world admits that something is wrong, it is subjected to beliefs of a people, as they act in their natural enclave. To win against all social norms that put our society in danger and threatens to undo our greatness, we must at the base, tackle cultural relativism as it affects a target population per time. It is until we do this perfectly that we can begin to enjoy the results of the different works done in clusters.

Together, we will #endcuttinggirls in this generation.





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