Preventing Female Circumcision

One of the biggest problems the average African woman contends with when it comes to sexual pleasure is their inability to achieve orgasm during sex. This is a man-made problem caused by the absence of a sex organ called the clitoris. As a result of an obnoxious cultural practice and belief, most Nigerian and other African women are circumcised. This practice, known as female circumcision, involves the removal of the clitoris from the vagina. In very mild conditions, this involves the removal of only a small tip of the organ. But in extreme cases the entire clitoris and even other parts of the labia are cut off. Some experts therefore believe that female circumcision is nothing short of female genital mutilation. It is a widespread cultural practice.

In 2007, Bedur Shaker, an eleven-year-old Egyptian girl died in the process of getting circumcised. The public outcry that followed her death eventually forced the country’s health ministry to enact a law banning female circumcision in Egypt. We are hoping that other African countries will find ways to outlaw this archaic cultural practice.

Apart from the health implications of this practice, which is sometimes grave as in the case of the poor Egyptian girl, it is now a well established fact that women who are circumcised do not enjoy sex as much as their non-circumcised counterparts. Virtually all circumcised women do not reach orgasm during sex, which is the peak of sexual pleasure for both men and women. The reason for this is not far-fetched. This sex organ called clitoris performs no other known function other than to increase the pleasure a woman can derive from sex.

Very likely, our forefathers were aware this function of that female organ, and so introduced female circumcision as a way of checking promiscuity among women — as if a promiscuous or even a perverted male would have his penis cut off! Our forefathers probably reasoned inductively that if the clitoris makes a woman derive much pleasure from sex, therefore by the time it is removed, a woman would not find sex so interesting as to want to engage in it outside of marriage. This is no doubt a selfish, ignorant, and chauvinistic way of reasoning, which was very common at a time when women were meant to be seen and not heard. It was a wicked reasoning imposed on the women at a time they were considered to have no rights.

Unfortunately, this cultural practice continues till this day in most African societies. A nationwide survey carried out in Egypt in 2005 revealed that 97% of married women claimed to have been circumcised. A similar study in Nigeria showed that over 80% of all women surveyed said they were circumcised. Most ethnic groups in Nigeria still consider female circumcision as a cultural norm. Some parents in these societies would go to any length to have their daughters circumcised. Whatever may have informed the cultural ideology behind female circumcision, there is now mounting evidence that it is a negative cultural practice which should be discouraged in all its ramifications. For one thing, it has made millions of married women especially here in Nigeria not to enjoy sex in their marriages. As a result, many circumcised women actually hate sex and try to avoid it. Consequently, this has become a major source of friction in many households, and one of the unrecognized causes of infidelity and divorces. As a result of their wife’s frigidity, some men become frustrated and look elsewhere for the sexual satisfaction they cannot get from their wives.

In this discuss, I am exploring how the tools of development communication can be utilized to help the local people see the need to change their attitudes towards this cultural practice.

Development Communication and Female Circumcision

Development communication is a corrective type of communication. It involves the use of specified communication efforts to drive development. Its main aim is to enhance the well being of the inhabitants of a given society by sensitizing such people to adopt helpful and innovative information. Development communication involves well-designed and well-articulated communication efforts which are meant to bring development messages to the awareness of those needing it. In this sense, how can this tool be used to make the local people realize the dangers of female circumcision? What communication models would be most suitable for achieving best results?

Government efforts and why they failed: Government efforts to solve this societal problem have often failed for two reasons: (1) government officials are often shy to approach this issue with firmness because it pertains to sex, and sex is always a taboo topic in our society. Ours is a hypocritical society. People engage in horrible sexual practices in private, yet they claim to be too holy to discuss issues pertaining to sex in public. But there is nothing really wrong with a positive, dignified, and educative discussion of sexual matters. Then (2) when government does intervene on this issue, it often does so by way of policies and regulations which were never intended to be enforced. The point is you cannot legislate on a matter like this one.

It’s not like male circumcisions that are done at government and private hospitals. Female circumcision is carried out in secrecy. You are never going to see the offenders in order to prosecute them. Therefore, in tackling this problem, there is need to adopt another approach, one different from what the government has done without achieving results. To influence people’s beliefs and change their attitude and behavior in this matter, there is need to use opinion leaders, gate keepers, and traditional leaders to legitimize the relevant media messages, and make these more understandable and acceptable to the men, women and other rural dwellers. This naturally leads us to the recommendations of the two-step flow hypothesis theory. The nature of this problem also requires that the Two-Step flow strategy be employed in combination with the Instructional Design Model to ensure greater impact.

The two-step flow theory
This theory belongs to the diffusion theory of communication. It explains how information spreads from one place to another and from one person to the next, especially in traditional societies. The theory states that mass media messages and other types of information do not often reach people directly but sometimes through the intervention of gatekeepers such as traditional rulers, village chiefs, pastors, native doctors and others who shape opinions in the rural areas. Ideas often flow from radio and television stations and the print media to these opinion leaders who then interpret and cascade the messages to the less active members of the society- peasants such the uneducated, the children and the poor men and women. The theory stratifies people according to their beliefs, interests, activities and demographic characteristics. The two-step flow theory further identifies five variables that interfere between a message and how it is received:

(1) Access to information
(2) Exposure
(3) Character of the medium
(4) Message content
(5) Psychological disposition of the audience

Access to information refers to ownership of either radio or television or other sources of information. Exposure means the ability to receive the messages. The character of the medium has to do with the type of medium: is it radio, or television or printed information? Then the psychological disposition of the audience refers to their attitudes, knowledge, beliefs, and perception.

Message intervention strategy
The recommendations of this theory can be employed to tackle the problem of female circumcision, using the following steps:

1. Since this practice has deep roots in traditional beliefs, merely airing opposing views through radio and television is sure to be misinterpreted. People will misconstrue the message as another attempt by the west to impose their views on the local population. The use of force too by government will not work. A better approach would be to involve some influential local people in the communication effort. Government agencies could package an empirical report and also cite local instances to persuade the opinion leaders concerning the negative impacts of female circumcision. Based on their new awareness, the opinion leaders, especially traditional chiefs and village leaders can then communicate to people in their communities concerning the bad consequences of female circumcision.

2. Even if there is need to make use of conventional mass media tools, this should be the type of media accessible to the local people. For example, putting such intervention messages in newspapers and magazines would have little impact since local people rarely read papers- most of them are illiterate. Radio and occasional television messages would be more effective. The use of town criers too can be explored.

3. Television programs featuring the message should involve the opinion leaders. It could be in the form of a television talk-show which features well known members of that society (the target audience), discussing the dangers of female circumcision. Hearing the views of their opinion leaders is sure to affect the thinking of the local population.

4. Mass Media messages meant for the rural population should be timed to coincide
With when the greater number of the people would be at home to access or receive the information. Airing such messages in the afternoon would not achieve desired effects since most of them would be away at their farms. Early evening is the most ideal time for such messages.

But to ensure that the message intervention achieves the desired results, there is need to employ the tools of the Instructional Design Model. This strategy involves message design and pre-testing (which fall under pre-program planning), message intervention, then monitoring and evaluation. Thus, before putting the message on air, or in print, or through other means to reach the local people, government must have carried out some audience research studies. This includes collection of data on the different audiences to be reached.

This will identify the most appropriate channels of communicating to them, their perception of the problem at hand (in this case female circumcision), and the most effective media that will achieve the desired results with the target audience. It is only after this analysis that message intervention can follow. Of course, messages in themselves are not effective without adequate organizational and managerial support. This is often necessary to ensure constancy and consistency of opinion.

Monitoring and evaluation
Having intervened with the message, there is need to gauge the impact of the message on the population. This is the last stage in any message intervention effort. There is need to sample the population and measure the effect that the message has had on their Knowledge, Attitude, and Behavior. We need to measure the message input and output which will tell us the result of the campaign. For example, how many people is the message reaching? How has their attitude towards female circumcision been affected by the message? Have their behaviors towards the practice changed as a result of the message? Also, how much money is government putting into the project? Finally, has the intervention effort achieved the desired result? The answers to these questions constitute the monitoring and evaluation stage, which is also the final stage in any message intervention effort.

The implementation of the above-listed suggestions will go a long way in helping all stake holders see the need to stop this cultural practice. It is my humble opinion that this approach will help in discouraging this primitive and rather chauvinistic practice called female circumcision.