Approximately 35 white plastic chairs huddled under a tin-roofed awning extending from an empty concrete building into the red mud of the village road. Rain dripped off the ends of the tin sheets and created a thunderous racket for those of us sitting underneath its shelter. I was there with six colleagues from GPI, our backs to the painted concrete walls as we watched the meeting taking place in front of us.
The plastic chairs had slowly filled with villagers over the course of an hour as they trickled in out of the pouring rain. Men and women of all ages came and sat down to join the group. They were the villagers, elders, and inhabitants of Atan Okoyong Mmakara, a village about an hour and a half drive outside of Calabar. I measure the distance in time and not kilometers for two reasons. First, because the roads in Nigeria are so decrepit that it takes many long minutes to dodge each precarious pothole so distance just isn’t a reliable indicator. Second, because Atan Okoyong Mmakara doesn’t appear to be found on any maps so who actually knows how far away it is.
To be entirely honest, I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I jumped onto the GPI bus that morning. One of the biggest things that I’ve struggled with at work in Nigeria is lack of effective (or any) communication. I didn’t know where I was going, I didn’t know why I was going, I didn’t know how long I would be gone. All I knew was that the bus was taking me away from my tiny, sweltering office for a day and I was ecstatic.
When we pulled up in the tiny village, I grabbed my camera and jumped out of the bus with my colleagues, just following along and pretending I had some idea of what was happening. We sat down in our own plastic chairs and were handed an agenda printed on plain white paper. It read:
“GPI’s Community Partnership Group on Girls’ Empowerment organizes a one day sensitization training programme on: THE EFFECT OF FGM AND TEENAGE PREGNANCY.”
I now know that GPI helps to set up community-based advocacy groups in villages across the state. The idea being that community members are more likely to listen to those from within their own community when it comes to topics like violence against women and girls, FGM, child marriage, family planning, etc. This particular session was hosted by a man who called himself Samloco and who had been working in partnership with GPI for some time already. It was (as the agenda title suggests) to facilitate conversation about the harmful nature of FGM and teenage pregnancy.
For those of you not in the know, or for those of you who need a little refresher, allow me. Female genital mutilation (also known as female circumcision) is the partial or complete removal of the external female genitalia which can range from the cutting of the clitoris to the removal of the labia minora and/or labia majora to closing the vaginal opening with stitches.
FGM has absolutely no health benefits to girls and causes an alarming plethora of harmful complications. Short term effects can include severe pain, excessive bleeding, fever, infections, shock and even death. Long term effects cover everything from painful urination, menstrual problems, extreme pain during intercourse, increased risk of complications during childbirth and the potential need for later surgeries to cut the vaginal opening to allow for sex or childbirth. That’s not even to mention the host of psychological problems proven to be tied to this incredibly harmful practice.
Nigeria is said to account for almost one quarter of the 200 million women and girls living with FGM today. With such a large population, Nigeria has the highest absolute number of FGM cases in the world. The national instance of FGM among adult women in Nigeria is 41%.
Knowing the statistics is one thing. Listening to village elders defend the practice is another.
One elderly woman stood up at the beginning of the session and made an impassioned speech in her local language. Since most of my colleagues from GPI were not fluent in the language, Samloco translated for us. She made the claim that FGM was their tradition. That it was a celebration of the birth of a female into the family, a joyous occasion. She claimed that traditions are important and that they should be respected.
A man stood up not long after her, drawing the eyes of everyone under the awning. His claim was that the people of his village are God-fearing citizens and it says to circumcise your daughters in the bible and so they should follow God’s will.
These are the same rationalizations that practicers of FGM use across the globe. Tradition. Culture. Religion. Protection of virginity. Shaming of promiscuity and sexual pleasure.
GPI is trying to change that. They are trying to dismantle those misconceptions, make people question their harmful traditional practices and acknowledge the harm that FGM does to girls. To acknowledge the harm that was done to them when they were little girls.
Right before we left the meeting, my colleague Glory (head of media and advocacy for GPI) stood up to make a breathtaking speech. She called on the villagers to empower themselves and their children. She looked directly at the men and asked them if they helped their wives around the house, with the cooking or with the children. She asked them, why not? She called on the women to stand together against the systemic gender-based violence experienced by women in communities all over the world. She called on the community to work together and to educate themselves.
“When you educate a girl,” she exclaimed, “you don’t just educate the girl. You don’t just educate the village. You educate the nation!”
I’ve been at GPI for about a month now and I’m continually impressed by this organization, the work they are doing and the absolutely phenomenal men and women who are fighting against the patriarchy in Nigeria. They are powerhouses of passion and dedication. They are really and truly giving their all to save the lives of Nigeria’s women in girls in so many different ways it’s astounding!
Nigeria has a long way to go in terms of gender equality (as does pretty much every other country in the world, I might add), but with organizations like GPI doing everything in their power to make sure that not one girl is mistreated, discriminated against, left-behind or allowed to reach anything other than her full potential, I’m confident that they’ll get there one day. And I’m happy to be here to bear witness to the work that they do and to learn from the women who are out there changing the world just a little bit, every single day.