Traditional rulers, being community gatekeepers in the local setting, have proved critical stakeholders in the campaign to end FGM in Nigeria.

Generally, most campaigns that have successfully changed harmful traditional practices and social norms in the past, have, in one way or the other, leveraged on this essential influence of traditional rulers in the local setting to excel.

For instance, in all communities that have publicly declared the abandonment of FGM in Nigeria, a thorough examination will always reveal traditional rulers as having played a great role in actualizing such milestone.

Haven said this, why are our Traditional Rulers the Community Heroes working to #EndFGM in Nigeria and how can they do more to ensure the total elimination of FGM in Nigeria?

FGM refers to any procedure that involves “partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or any other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.”

There are different forms of FGM, some of which involve more radical excisions in the genital area than others.

FGM has 4 types, Clitoridectomy; Excision; Infibulation; & Unclassified (e.g. “pressing” the clitoris with hot water)

The origin and significance of FGM practice is shrouded in secrecy, uncertainty and fraught with controversy either as an initiation ceremony of young girls into womanhood or to ensure virginity and curb promiscuity, or to protect female modesty and chastity.

FGM demonstrates deep-rooted gender inequalities and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women. It is also a serious violation of the rights of girls’ health, security, integrity, dignity, and freedom.

FGM is not required by any religion and there is no scientific evidence that women who have been mutilated are more faithful or better wives than those who have not undergone the procedure.

It is therefore very clear that there is no single benefit derived from FGM and possible medical complications includes but not limited to: severe bleeding, cysts, infections, difficulty urinating, issues with childbirth and even death.

For more information about basic facts about FGM, visit www.endcuttinggirls.org Also do well to follow the handle “Endcuttinggirls Nigeria’’ on all social media platforms for constant updates about the #EndFGM campaign.

You can also visit who.int or watch  

Elimination of FGM by 2030 is high on the international agenda, enshrined as target 5.3 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Efforts to end FGM have been embraced by governments, regional and sub-regional bodies, media at all levels, and increasingly civil society and social movements.

However, approaches to transform the social norms on FGM have evolved to reflect new learnings. Much more needs to be done to address the deeply held myths and beliefs in these communities.

In many parts of the world, FGM is backed up by deep-seated perceptions embedded in culture

Additionally, traditional rulers and custodians of culture wield so much power, influence, and authority in their communities that their cooperation and participation in changing the status quo in their communities is non-negotiable.

As the stewards of traditional rites of passage, these community gatekeepers are in charge of preserving these rites, cultural values and norms from one generation to the other.

Traditional rulers, being the main decision makers in these communities, any campaign to change any social norm without factoring them into the process will yield very little or no positive result.

Based on strict recognition and compliance to the above stated facts, traditional rulers across Nigeria have done so much and are still doing greatly in the campaign to end FGM in various cutting communities across the country.

There is need to understand that traditional rulers are the true community heroes in the fight against FGM.

To many, it may be surprising, however, that traditional rulers who should be custodians of culture are today being celebrated for haven contributed and still contributing significantly to eliminate FGM from Nigeria.

This is especially bearing in mind that FGM is seen as a cultural practice in most communities where the harmful practice is performed.

Importantly, there are modalities for engaging traditional rulers in the campaign against FGM if one must achieve the desired results.

One important rule in the end FGM campaign generally is the “Do No Harm” rule.

To get a community to abandon a social norm, one must seek to see and understand that practice from the community’s perspective.

As have been understood, in the case of FGM, most persons who cut their daughters in various communities actually do that out of love and in order to give their daughters the best with no harm initially intended.

Stakeholders working on FGM elimination must strive to establish this common ground of “the community wanting the best for their women and girls” first, and then proceed from there to differentiate between beneficial and harmful cultural practices.

It is easier to dialogue with the community and get their cooperation when they understand from the outset that no one has come to outrightly condemn their culture in it’s entirety but rather to encourage the good as well as point out the harmful aspects.

The traditional rulers must be told that “culture” is not bad entirely and that it has many beneficial and neutral aspects which they should continue to preserve and promote as the heritage of their people.

They will however be told that some of these cultural practices which FGM is a typical example are harmful and should be abandoned, citing the dangers of FGM to women, girls, their families and communities.

When the traditional rulers are already convinced on the dangers of FGM and the need for it’s abandonment, they will also open the community gate to the new knowledge.

The traditional rulers themselves will as well work with the leadership structure in their community such as the women, men, youth, age grades and development union leaders to disseminate the new knowledge.

With the help and consent of traditional rulers, it will also be easier for various stakeholders working on ending FGM to access the larger community members, teaching them the harmful implications of FGM and the need for it’s abandonment.

Usually, it will take consistent and several community dialogues with the traditional rulers, custodians of culture and other critical stakeholders in the community to get them totally convinced and ready to expunge FGM from their tradition.

This chain of community dialogue will continue until a threshold is reached and the community decides to come out together one day to publicly declare the abandonment of FGM in their land.

The beauty of public declaration is that from the day a community takes that wonderful decision, they have also taken ownership of the campaign.

For instance most of these communities that have taken this decision have also in addition set up local surveillance committees that monitor compliance to that decision with local sanctions for FGM offenders.

And in a case where anyone is caught still indulging in the practice, the community has stipulated sanctions that the person will face.

So, with the community gradually owning up the campaign, led by the traditional rulers, the practice of FGM will gradually and completely be eliminated from that community in the medium or long term.

Overall, the process of expunging FGM from a community is usually a long process, with traditional rulers as critical and essential drivers of this process.

Additionally, the idea of community ownership of the #EndFGM campaign will remain a mirage without the essential involvement of traditional rulers.

A key takeaway is that, too often, well-meaning governmental and non-governmental interventions intended to help improve the lots of girls in the past have alienated elders and overlooked the value of community-led solutions.

It is very expedient to note that in communities around the world where people have openly declared to #endFGM, it has been led by the traditional rulers/custodians of culture

Instances where collaboration with custodians of culture have paid off handsomely in the #endFGM campaign across Nigeria are hereby mentioned below:-

On 19th June 2017, traditional rulers & the custodians “Ishiukes” of custom in Izzi clan, Ebonyi State, Nigeria led a historic massive end FGM Pubic Declaration. This was the first of it’s kind in the country. Watch video:-  

Apart from the historic Izzi public declaration, more have also happened in other states across the nation such as:-

Osun State Video

Oyo State Video

to mention but a few.

During these events the custodians noted that they took the decision based on enlightenment they received on the health implications of the practice on women and girls.

It is worthy to note that several years of #endFGM efforts in Izzi clan, Ebonyi and the other states that did not properly factor-in these traditional rulers & custodians of custom did not yield much.

Suffice to say that an #endFGM public declaration/affirmation refers to “formal public ceremonies involving one or more communities—typically villages, but increasingly also districts and ethnic group that take part in an event where they manifest, through their representatives, the specific commitment to abandon FGM”. 

Public declaration is therefore a moment of broad social recognition, which shows that most support abandonment of FGM, and most likely will abandon the practice. 

When traditional rulers & custodians of culture lead these public declaration, it does not necessarily mean that the declaring community is henceforth free from FGM, anyway; But it surely represents a milestone in the process of abandonment because it signals the change in social expectations and sets the tone for the reversal of the FGM trend in such communities.

In many part of Nigeria, traditional rulers & custodians of custom are next to the gods. They are seen to be infallible and know what’s good for their people

To this end, we must appreciate and celebrate the critical role traditional rulers & custodians of culture have been playing and are still playing to stamp out FGM from various communities

In many other cutting communities across Nigeria where #endFGM public declarations are yet to be recorded, various collaborative efforts with traditional rulers & custodians of culture are interestingly resulting in community level #endFGM dialogues

These dialogues have helped community members to speak openly about FGM and end the culture of silence around the practice

It must be said that the culture of silence has been one of the biggest challenges in combating FGM. A situation where those that have been cut do not have the courage to share their pains

Getting the custodians of culture and traditional rulers to become #endFGM advocates have given the EndFGM message “divine credibility” and have helped in drumming wider support from members of various cutting communities to end the practice

Also, introducing alternative rites of passage is within the ambit of traditional rulers & custodians of custom as law makers

When our traditional rulers & custodians of custom function as law enforcers, they help ensure that community members respect the community and country’s law

If there is anywhere the popular saying that “everything in life rises and falls on the altar of leadership” is most true, the traditional community setting is the place.

When it comes to changing a social norm in any community little or no success may ever be possible if traditional rulers in such settings are undermined.

Now like never before, therefore, traditional rulers in all cutting communities must be essentially engaged until FGM completely becomes a thing of the past in Nigeria.

Going forward, efforts should therefore be tailored towards engaging community leadership and leveraging on culture and traditions to end FGM.

Premised on the understanding that community-led solutions where local actors are fully engaged and approached with cultural sensitivity and respect will take us faster to our destination in the #endFGM campaign.

The social norm that sustains the practice of FGM around the world rests on the shakiest of foundations: it is composite of faulty beliefs, perceived obligations and inferred expectations all woven together in a suprizingly durable knot.

Yes, given the strength of social bonds that binds communities together, the norm that sustains FGM has proven difficult to handle.

But it cannot withstand, forever, the forces of reports of the harm the practice causes, the reminders that it violates the human rights of girls and local laws alike, the poignant voices of survivors, and the mounting evidence of changing attitudes.

It cannot withstand the force of collective action and social evolution. Our work is to accelerate FGM’s inevitable demise.

As we all come together, in solidarity, to lend our voices and support the #endFGM campaign, we must note that our traditional rulers hold the key to stamping out this harmful practice from all cutting communities.

We must continue to celebrate all traditional rulers to have used their capacity to advance this noble cause as well as continue to seek collaboration with others who are yet to sign up to the campaign.

Thanks for being part of our conversations today. Join us every other Thursday 5-7pm. Visit our website www.endcuttinggirls.org and kindly follow the handle “Endcuttinggirls Nigeria’’ on all social media platforms.

It’s time to hear and respond to your questions and/or opinions based on the conference. Keep them coming.