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Female Genital Circumcision In Nigeria The Case Of Bayelsa State: Historical And Socio-Cultural Study


Ogbari C.C. Ama-ogbari Ph.D Department Of History And Diplomacy Niger Delta University, Wilberforce Island Bayelsa State, Nigeria E-mail: GSM: 07067296378 


This is a social and historical study, which set out to examine the issue of female genital circumcision in general and focusing in Bayelsa State of Nigeria. The study revealed that the persistence of this practice is due largely to traditional and cultural beliefs. In the course of the study the origin, causes, procedure, advantages and disadvantages are examined. This is the focus of this paper


On a general perspective, in terms of definitive concept; female genital circumcision or female genital mutilation (FGM) is described as a traditional practice in which a person, sometimes unskilled or a health worker cut off parts or whole organ of the female genitalia usually using a knife or razor blade which for most part is unsterile as a cutting instrument (Adebajo, 1992). 

A World Health Organisation (WHO) Technical Working Group on female genital circumcision (1994, 1995) defines it as “all procedures which involves partial or total removal of the external female genitalia and/or 

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injury to the female genital organs whether for cultural or any other nontherapeutic reasons”. 

In order to underscore its severity as a medical practice, Dorkenoo (1995) prefers the term Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) to what she describes as a softer concept of “Female circumcision”. 

In his own view Tantua (1999) described female genital circumcision as any interference with the natural appearance of the female external genitalia using blade, knife or any sharp instrument in order to bring about either a reduction in size of the clitoris or complete removal of the vulva. 

According to Inter Africa Committee (IAC; 1997), female genital mutilation involves the removal of a part or whole of the female genitalia through surgery that is either performed by untrained or formally trained practitioners. 

In sum therefore, female genital circumcision is the collective name given to several different traditional practice that involves the cutting in parts or whole of female genitals. The procedure is commonly performed on girls between the age of four and twelve years of age as a rite of passage to womanhood. However in some cultures, it is practiced as early as a few days after birth and as late as just prior to marriage or during pregnancy. 

Girls may be circumcised alone or with a group of pears from their community. It is generally performed by a traditional practitioner, often and older woman who comes from a family in which generations of women have been traditional practitioner. 

However, more recently in some countries it is also performed by physicians, nurses, and midwives. 

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Indigenous population uses a variety of terms in local dialects to describe the practice. These are often synonymous with purification or cleansing, such as the term tabara in Egypt, tabur in Sudan and bolokoli in Mali. 

Bayelsa state “the Glory of all Lands” is one of thirsty-six states in Nigeria. It was created on October 1st, 1996 out of the old Rivers State and thus it is one of the newest states of the Nigerian federation. 

Bayelsa is made up of eight local government areas, namely Brass, Yenagoa, Sagbama, Nembe, Ogbia Southern Ijaw, Kolokuma/Opukuma and Ekermor. The prevalent areas under study are Yenagoa, Sagbama and Southern Ijaw Local Government areas of the state. 

In the Bayelsa State of Nigeria, female genital circumcision is a common accepted way of making the girl child or woman marriageable. This study will look at this practice historically in historical and social terms with emphasis on Bayelsa State. 

Historical Origin Of Female Genital Mutilation 

The Origin of the practice of female genital mutilation or circumcision dates back to about 5,000 years ago and had originated in Egypt. Another school of thought however had it that it was an African tradition which spread to Egypt by diffusion and became known in the Sudan as Pharonic circumcision. However, Africa is not the only continent where female genital circumcision is practiced. It is practiced in the Middle East and South East Asia and has been found among the Ditta Pitta in Australia where the severest form is known. There are records of it among the population of Peru and Mexico and the Skopts, Christian sect in Russia. It is also indicative that female circumcision was carried out among slaves in ancient Rome and involved inserting one more rings through the Labia (Ruswan, 1996). Drawing from the works of Hosken (1979) some form of female genital circumcision is practiced by the Daudi Bohra in India and 

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Europe and United States where it was practiced on hysteric and “intractable ladies” until the 1950s (Gunning 1992, Dawit 1994, Toubia, 1994). 

Today, female genital circumcision is pervasive in Africa among Islamic and non-Islamic population (Rushwan, 1996) and among African immigrants to the United States, France, Sweden, and Spain (Sanderson 1981 Minority Right Group, 1980-86, F. Magazine, 1980, No 31. 74-75). Derkernoo (1995) also recently documented cases of female genital circumcision in Latin, America, India, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia. 

Female genital circumcision is practiced in more than 30 countries of the world while as many as between 85 million and 115 million women and girls are estimated to have undergone the operation. 

Types Of Female Genital Circumcision 

According to Kiragn (1995), in an effort to standardize the terminology of female circumcision, the World Health Organization (WHO) has categorized female genital circumcision into four main groups. 

Firstly is type I or Sunna: This is regarded as the simplest form of female genital circumcision. Basically it involves the removal of the prepuce (clitoral hood) sometimes along with part or all of the clitoris. 

The second is type II or Clitoridectomy: In this type, both the clitoris and part or all the Labia minor (inner verger lips) are removed. 

Type III is also called Infibulation: This is sometimes refers to as “Pharoanic or Sudanic Operation.” In this type the clitoris is removed, some or all of the labia minor are amputated, and incisions are made on the labia major (outer lips) to create a raw surface. These raw surfaces are either stitched together and/or kept in contact until they are seal as a “blood or skin” 

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covering the urethra and of most of the virginal opening. A small opening (sometimes the size of a matched head or the top of a small finger) is created to allow the flow of urine and menstrual blood. According to experts infibulation comprises roughly 15% of female genital mutilation. 

In some African countries such as Sudan, Somalia and Djibouti 80% – 90% of all female genital mutilation as infibulation is that the two sides of the vulva are then stitched together (generally using thorns, catcuts, or a paste of egg, sugar and gum Arabic) leaving an opening the size of a pin head to allow for the flow of urine and menstrual blood (Dawit, 1994). 

Type IV is called Gishri or Angur Yacut: This is a new category that encompasses a group of other operations on the external genitalia. These groups are popularly known as the Gishri or Angurya cuts. Incision extending from the virginal opening interiorly or posteriorly into the sounding tissue with damage to the urinary bladder (Urethral opening or rectum and anus). 

Reason for Female Genital Circumcision 

Research from inter Africa committee (IAC) (1997) revealed that female genital circumcision is still deeply entrenched in Nigerian society. The stakeholders and decision makers of this act are the grandmothers, mothers, women opinion leaders, men, age group and others with restricted interest in female genital mutilation are the circumcisers who derives substantial economic benefits from the operation and who seems to use it to wield power over women. 

There are various myths which surround female general circumcision in Nigeria. These myths which are still wide spread among Nigerian ethnic groups and culture are expressed in local proverbs. Among the proverbs which are used to underscore the myths are “the clitoris is the cape of prostitution which the virginal wears from heaven” “if we do not clip the 

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clitoris young, it is going to be asking for great sacrifices from the penis when it grows up,” ‘the fortune gathered by the penis is taken up by the virginal”. ‘an uncircumcised woman is not to be respected and the penis grows, so does the clitoris’. 

These and other proverbs concerning female circumcision demonstrate how deep the perception of the clitoris is. Female genital circumcision is practiced for varied reasons. These reasons are discussed below: 

Customs and Tradition: 

In many communities in Bayelsa state the practice of circumcision, is done as a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood, during which time the girl is equipped with skills for handling marriage, husband, and children. The process of ‘becoming’ a woman thus contributes to the maintenance of this practice by linking the girl to the lifestyle and roles played by other women. This practice therefore represents an act of socialization into cultural values and connection to family community members and previous generation. Communities that practice this act affirm their relationship with the beliefs of the past by continuing the tradition; they maintain customs and thus preserve cultural identity. 

Woman’s Sexuality: 

Another fundamental reason forwarded for the practice of female genital circumcision is the need to curtail extreme sexual appetite among women. This is because sexuality is socially constructed; it has different meanings depending on its context. For many communities that practice female genital mutilation, a family or clan’s honour depends on a girl’s virginity or sexual restraint. This is the case in Egypt, Sudan and Somalia where female genital circumcision is perceived as a way to curtail premarital sex and preserve virginity. Besides, it is performed to reduce the women’s sexual demands on her husband, thus allowing him to have several wives. Notwithstanding the different reasons, to control women’s sexuality, it is also said to have helped to reduce women’s sexual desire, 

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thus promoting women’s virginity and protecting marital fidelity, in the interest of male sexuality. This also seems to be the case underpinning this act in Bayelsa State. 


It is on record that female circumcision pre-dates the advent of Islam and Christianity in Africa, and not a religious rituals or requirement, but practiced by the Jews, Christians Muslims and amongst adherent of African Traditional Religion. Be that as it may, this act is strongly prevalent and identified with Islam in several African nations and many members of the muslin community advocates for this practice while neither the Koran which is the primary source for Islamic laws nor the “Hadith” collection of the saying of the prophet Mohammed include a direct call for female genital circumcision. 

Most recently, during the international conference on population and reproductive health in the Muslim world at Egypt’s Al Azhaur University, a traditional centre of Islamic Scholarship, it was agreed that certain harmful practices, including female genital circumcision were the result of mis-understanding of the provision of Islamic injunctions. 

Social Pressure: 

A common explanation for female genital circumcision, especially in Bayelsa State is social pressure in a community where most women are circumcised. Community members creates an environment in which the practice of circumcision becomes component for social conformity. Circumcision thus goes from being a perceived need for acceptance. In such a context, not circumcising may not be an option. 

Besides, fear of community judgment such as men’s refusal to marry uncircumcised women contributes to this pressure. 

Other Reasons: 

There are other numerous reason why this age-long practice had endured. Firstly, in some community, it is generally believed 

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that if a woman dies uncircumcised, she would not be buried in the regular cemetery. Aesthetically some people believe that female genitalia is ugly and offending and need to beautify it by circumcision. For others, circumcision keeps them in slim shape. 

Another reason for circumcision accordingly is for recognition mainly though marriage and child bearing, therefore to be uncircumcised is to have no place in the community. It is also believed in some quarters that uncircumcised women harbours evil spirit and unclean, and therefore needs to be avoided. 

It is also generally believed that uncircumcised women would give birth to stillborn. Some local myths hold the view that the head of the baby must not touch the clitoris. Again, it is believed that female genital mutilation would make a woman fertile and/or facilitate child birth. 

Generally, there is this belief that female genital circumcision is performed ostensibly for health and for mundane reason, for example, the Bini thinks the clitoris cause itching (etare) or is always dirty and/or emits unpleasant odour, therefore female genital circumcision is necessary in order to ensure cleanliness. 

Some communities consider it a good tradition and a sign of maturity. However, in some cultures, it is practice as early as a few days after birth and as late as prior to marriage or after the first pregnancy. Girls may be circumcised along or with a group of peers from the community the Ijaws in Opuama, Bomo clan in Bayelsa State perform female genital circumcision at a much later stage in the life of a girl/woman between the age of 8 and 12 years and at first pregnancy before delivery. Female genital circumcision is performed during a woman’s first pregnancy in Sagbama Local Government Area of Bayelsa State. Again some Ijaw apart from sharing many traditions with other ethnic groups in Edo and Delta state stand out 

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as a group because they perform circumcision after dealth (Myers etal 1985). At death an uncircumcised female, crying in prohibited till the corpse is circumcised and usual ceremonies performed. This is done by diviners placing one kobo coin inside the coffin after excision and saying as follows: “me oke eseinye” meaning “this is what we can offer”. Most people therefore perform the ceremony just to avoid the shame of being given one Kobo at death”. 

Advantages of Female Genital Circumcision 

Despite the general cry and condemnation against genital circumcision, there are visible advantages. 

Undoubtedly, one of the advantages of female genital circumcision is income generation. Practitioners charge money from their “customer” and thus become a major ready source of income for them. 

Besides, it also prevents promiscuity, female genitor circumcision is said to reduce libido among women and adds to the value and respect for women. It is a general belief that those who are circumcised have less desire for men than uncircumcised female. 

Female genital circumcision helps in the process of socialization among relations and friends. Gifts, money and valuables are presented to the circumcised girl. It could have an esthetic value on the girl and prevent pain during sexual intercourse. 

Female circumcision is cultural. It encourages fattening and beautification. An uncircumcised girl feels segregated from other circumcised girls in the community, when circumcised girls wear their beads and beautifying materials especially during festive period. 

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Furthermore, female genital circumcision is regarded as a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood during which time the girl is equipped with skills for home management, marriage, and offer general household training. 

In some communities, for instance Kemeingbene, Opuama in Bayelsa State, special fee called “Ino di sili” is given to the girl before marriage to distinguish her from the uncircumcised girls/women and thus advantageous to the circumcised girls. 

Disadvantages of Female Genital Circumcision 

Female genital circumcision is frost with challenges and thus the called from different quarters to eradicate it. The following disadvantages are noted; 

The immediate complication of all types of female genital circumcision include severe pain and bleeding, If the bleeding is prolonged, it can lead to anemia which may affect the growth of a girl and result in life long weakness. Bleeding in rare cases could even lead to death, 

Another immediate complication associated with female genital mutilation is infection caused by using unsterile cutting instruments. Such infection may also occur within a few days of the procedure. If the genital area becomes contaminated with urine or feaces, the resultant infection could lead to septicemia if the bacterium reaches the blood steam. Acute urine retention could result from swelling and inflammation around the world. Retention is usually irreversible and can lead to urinary tract infection and spread of HIV/AIDS virus. 

In the long run, chronic pelvic infection could occur due to female genital circumcision. Besides, common long term complication is pain during 

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sexual intercourse. Women with female genital circumcision may also suffer from problems during child birth. 

While there are few studies on the psychological effects of female genital circumcision, available information indicates a strong potential impact on the lives of girls and women. Girls have reported disturbance in sleeping, moody and cognition shortly after experiencing the procedure, many girls and women experience fear, submission, or inhibition and suppressed feeling of anger, bitterness, or betrayer. Studies from Somalia and Sudan indicate negative effects on self-esteem and self-identity. 

Concluding Remark 

This study dwells on the social and historical perspective of female genital circumcision in Bayelsa State. However the scope has an introductive aspect which includes a wider coverage on Nigeria and other parts of the world. 

Female genital circumcision is widespread in Nigeria. It is estimated that more than fifty percent of Nigerian girls and women have undergone the procedure, while many more are still being subjected to it every year despite efforts being made to discourage the practice. It is performed among adherents of Islam and Christians alike. 

In Bayelsa state of Nigeria female genital circumcision is carried out at various stages in the life cycle of a female. This practice has persisted into the 21st century among Bayelsans because of the erroneous beliefs about segregation against the uncircumcised in some social functions, threat to life of the uncircumcised in some quarters, fear of un-sterility of promiscuity and not burying in appropriate place during death/burials and certain unquestionable traditions etc. 

For the above reasons, many people want female genial circumcision to continue and the practitioners of this act defend it because it has become a 

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viable means of subsistence. In Opuama community in Southern Ijaw, Sagbama and Yenagoa Local Government areas, it is part of puberty rituals. It earns the family a lot of status and gift in cash and kind. Female genital circumcision has come to stay in some remote areas in Bayelsa state. 


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project submitted to the Imo state University, Owerri, Nigeria. 

Published inNumber 1Volume 4