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African customs and the 21st Century

4 August 2016 at 03:31 | 1517 views

Commentary

By Dr. Hassan B. Sisay, Professor Emeritus, California State University, Chico, USA.

Have you ever noticed how quick some people are willing to defend African cultures and traditions no matter how bizarre and antithetical they may appear to basic human decency?

Cultural advocates often engage in endless arguments filled with a wide range of rhetorical dexterity aimed at justifying hideous customs. These advocates tend to be male. They are often cavalier about the detrimental effects of some of the customs and are quick to shut off critics with indignant justifications.

Not surprisingly, these cultural apologists have become the greatest supporters of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), also known as female circumcision.They defend, and employ multiple spurious arguments including the outrageous claim that FGM is socially beneficial to the victims and must be continued.

Why do we insist on adhering to cultural practices which have been shown to be clearly out of step in a modern and rapidly changing world? Why do we still support customs and traditions which cause infanticide and hardships to a wide range of groups including women, old folks, young boys and girls and the physically impaired?

Not so long ago, some African societies embraced the following questionable cultural practices: twin babies were deemed evil and were either immediately killed or abandoned in forests, children with extra fingers or thumbs also met the same fate.

Currently, there are all over the continent customs or traditions which by now should have been put in the dustbin of history. For example, Shero beatings in Nigeria, Bayankole marriages in Uganda, wife swapping in Namibia, spitting in the ears of the newly born in the Gambia, banishing girls who give birth out of wedlock, and potency tests requirements prior to the consummation of marriages. The list of bizarre cultural practices is long and defies common sense. Sadly, since people are mostly ignorant of their harmful effects, there is no organized or groundswell of opposition against them. Thus, what we tolerate, we perpetuate, even though many of these cultural practices have been proven to be clearly discriminatory, contribute to infanticide, considered universally inhumane and detrimental to the most vulnerable members of our society. So what are the solutions.?

A major step to problem solving is admitting that a problem exists. Wishing it away or ignoring its existence never works. On the contrary, it festers and increasingly grows worse.

Accordingly, after years of equivocations, euphemisms, and sometimes outright avoidance and fabrications, the Head of the United Nations Population Fund Chief Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin recently equated FGM to child abuse, adding there is absolutely no reason to cut anybody and it seemed to us that it is part of the gender imbalance that has always existed in these communities which are based on patriarchy.This reversal and open condemnation of a questionable policy by a ranking United Nations official will trigger a big sigh of relief to the many victims of needless cultural practices in Africa and elsewhere in the worldwide

Earlier, efforts at combating FGM were always dismissed by supporters as direct attacks on African culture, tradition or religion. Proponents falsely insisted that FGM reduces promiscuity, protects the virginity of young females and curbs premarital sexual urges. Even assuming that all of the above are correct, does that justify the relentless cruelty inflicted on innocent and hapless children? Besides, one might ask, if African men are so concerned about the virginity of females, who monitors their own virginity and sexual urges? Probably no one does. And yet, they are the main advocates and beneficiaries of these hideous cultural practices which continue to wreak havoc on women and young girls. In fact, there are numerous instances where some males refuse to marry uncircumcised young women, a development which may compound their social mobility in some of the rigid and structured African societies.

Following circumcision, girls as young as ages 9 -12 and beyond are sometimes forced to marry older males often selected by village elders or their parents following the payment of a dowry. These early marriages between under aged and older men have been cited as key reasons for child abuse, failed marriages and transmission of sexual diseases. Besides, the age gap also causes shock, sexual dysfunction, and a multiplicity of organ injuries to young brides. Does it matter to cultural apologists?

Regardless, FGM must be wiped off the face of the earth. It’s too gruesome and painful to fathom and beyond the pale to endure. Briefly, here is what FGM does to its victims who as earlier mentioned, are mostly young and helpless members of our society, who need our support and protection from horrific customs. The practice itself involves the partial or total removal of the female external genitalia. Some countries such as Somalia use an extreme form of female circumcision known as infibulation, involving removal of the clitoris as well as some or all of the labia minora, without any anesthesia administered to the victims many of whom are under 12 years. Imagine the excruciating pain, screams for help, and profound suffering these young girls have to endure just so for supporters to claim, this is my culture, with little or no consideration of the negative consequences of FGM on babies and young children.
As adults and years following circumcision, many FGM victims often experience difficulty during sexual intercourse and other health complications.

But to the mostly male advocates of FGM, this cultural practice is worth preserving because it ensures a constant supply of submissive virgin wives, with supposedly reduced sexual proclivities. In fact, some men adamantly refuse to marry women who have not been cut, thereby fueling the need to maintain the system.

Currently, the three leading pro FGM countries in Africa are the Republic of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Somalia. But plans are being implemented by local and international health and social organizations to combat this needless and inhumane cultural practice in the above countries and elsewhere in Africa. According to United Nations figures, about 130 million girls and women in 28 countries have undergone some form of FGM. At the moment, 14 countries in Africa have banned the practice.
Absent FGM, there are many other odious African cultural practices that need immediate re-examination or at best abandoned.

1. The seemingly insatiable search for virgins and harsh punishment meted out to girls including death for those who have lost their virginity prior to marriage. I wonder how many men realize that scientifically, not all women are born with a hymen or a membrane often regarded as an indication of virginity. Stop looking and killing our children for something that is not universal to every woman.

2. Punishing children accused of witchcraft must end (See UNESCO Report on the topic).

3. Describing deformed children as evil and often killing them during human sacrifice ceremonies.

Probably, the most repugnant, grotesque, and ridiculous African cultural practice, many degrees higher than absurd, involves a custom in Malawi which was recently discussed in a BBC article by ED Butler entitled THE MAN HIRED TO HAVE SEX WITH CHILDREN. Briefly, according to Butler in some remote southern regions of Malawi, it’s traditional for girls to be made to have sex with a paid sex worker known as a hyena once they reach puberty.The use of condoms during these sex acts is disallowed by customary laws. The hyena mentioned in the article named Eric Aniva, claimed that some of his victims were girls between 12 or 13 years old. A local defender of the custom justified it on the grounds that "girls are not responsible, so we have to train [them] in a good manner in the village, so that they don’t go astray."

Again, tradition is being used to perpetuate a clearly misguided and morally reprehensible act. As compensation, Hyenas are paid between $4 to $7 for each act. In addition, Hyenas are culturally mandated to have sex with wives of deceased husbands prior to their being buried. Although unsure about the exact number of his victims Aniva was quoted in the BBC piece of admitting to having slept with 104 women and girls. But this claim is probably false, since he had provided the same number in a previous interview in 2012. Asked by Butler if he was HIV positive given the prevalence of the disease in Malawi, Aniva responded yes and added that he keeps his health condition a secret to his victims and the parents.

To his credit, following the release of the BBC report, Malawi president Peter Mutharika on Wednesday July 27th 2016, ordered the immediate arrest of Erica Aniva for child abuse. Two days later, the Egyptian government arrested Raslan Fadl described as a notorious FGM doctor. Fiat justitia, ne pereat mundus, let justice be done, lest the world perish.

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