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Nigeria Bans Female Genital Mutilation


(The Root) – Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan signed a measure this week that criminalizes female genital mutilation, in one of his last official acts before yielding the country's top office to Muhammadu Buhari, the International Business Times reports.

This 2013 version of the bill sets out a maximum punishment of four years in prison and a 200,000 naira ($1,000) fine for carrying out FGM, BuzzFeed reports.

Some 19.9 million Nigerian women living today are thought to have undergone the practice, and human rights advocates hope the decision will spur about 26 other African countries to outlaw the procedure, the report says.

Nigeria's groundbreaking legislation sends “a powerful signal not only within Nigeria but across Africa,” according to J. Peter Pham, the director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council. Pham said the measure effectively criminalizes a significant percentage of female mutilations on the African continent. “One cannot overestimate the impact of any decision by Nigeria [on the continent],” he told the online news outlet.

More than 125 million girls and women alive today around the world are believed to have undergone some form of genital mutilation, with the majority concentrated in 29 countries, all but two in Africa, according to a 2013 study by the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef).

Jonathan suffered a stunning defeat by Buhari in March, becoming the first Nigerian president to be unseated at the ballot box. Buhari was inaugurated Friday.

“It took a lame duck president and lame duck legislators who don't have to face voters to undertake something that goes that much against the cultural norms or practices,” Pham told the International Business Times about the timing of the law.

Pham argued that Jonathan had even done a favor for Buhari, who will not have to face a future voter backlash on the controversial issue. “It's already signed and Buhari can say he's simply enforcing the laws,” Pham said.

As momentous as this step is, activists have warned that it will not change the high prevalence rates of the procedure in Nigeria — or the rest of the continent — overnight. As much as the legislation sends a clear message about impunity and provides activists with the legal framework to hold the government to account, criminalization of the entrenched practice still has its limitations, according to Stella Mukasa, the director of gender, violence and rights at the International Center for Research on Women.

“While legal safeguards are an important step towards ending FGM, they are not enough to eliminate it,” she wrote in a commentary for the Guardian. “Ending violence against women and girls requires investment, not just laws written in statute books. This is why we must emphasize community engagement, with a view towards shifting social norms, as a critical component of the eradication of FGM.”

The challenge of shifting social norms has been underscored in the case of other African countries like Egypt, where the prevalence of FGM was recently revealed to be at roughly 92 percent among married women despite the practice being outlawed in 2008. More than half of women surveyed by the government said they continued to be in favor of FGM because they viewed it as being in accordance with their cultural and religious traditions.