Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has signed a bill banning Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), a significant step forward for campaigns against the practice, which is considered a violation of human rights by the World Health Organisation yet is still viewed as a tradition in many African states.
Campaigners hope the ban will encourage other African states to follow suit. 26 other African nations are thought to have significant populations of women who have undergone the practice, which is estimated to have affected 19.9 million women (around 27% of the female population) in Nigeria alone. In other African countries the number of women affected is even higher, with a survey conducted by the Egyptian Health Ministry estimating that 97% of married women in the country have undergone FGM.
The new legislation has been hailed as a step forward for both Nigeria and the African continent as a whole. J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, told the International Business Times that the impact of Nigeria’s decision to outlaw FGM on Africa as a whole cannot be underestimated. He added that Nigeria has one of the highest numbers of cases of FGM due to the sheer size of its population, and that as a result of the new legislation a significant proportion of FGM cases in Africa will now be illegal.
However, there is also the possibility that Jonathan’s decision to criminalise FGM has been taken for politicallly motivated reasons, as the legislation has only been passed at the very end of his term as Nigerian president despite anti FGM campaigns having been common in Nigeria for many years. Some campaigners have argued that the legislation has only been enacted towards the end of the Jonathan presidency to play down potential opposition to the ban from some political movements.
The new legislation will also be difficult to enforce in some rural areas and will not produce instant change in the situation. Writing in The Guardian, the director of gender, violence and rights at the International Center for Research on Women., Stella Mukasa warned that legislation will not be enough to change traditional attitudes toward the practice:
While legal safeguards are an important step towards ending FGM, they are not enough to eliminate it. Ending violence against women and girls requires investment, not just laws written in statute books. This is why we must emphasise community engagement, with a view towards shifting social norms, as a critical component of the eradication of FGM.