Become a Patron


Oluyemisi Bamgbose

excerpted from: Oluyemisi Bamgbose, Legal and Cultural Approaches to Sexual Matters in Africa: the Cry of the Adolescent Girl , 10 University of Miami International and Comparative Law Review 127 (2001-2002) (65 footnotes)

In contemporary times, the issue of sexuality is an aspect of reproductive rights, which is internationally recognized as critical to the advancement and promotion of adolescent human rights. However, under the African culture, open discussions on certain issues on sexuality are regarded as taboo. Cultural norms forbid the teaching about sexual relations and each person is supposed to find out all there is know by experience. Paradoxically, there are some cultural practices having sexual connotations that young adolescent girls are encouraged to become involved in and in which they are tutored from childhood. Such issues relate to the puberty stage of the adolescent girl and are commonly linked with rituals, festivity and celebrations. Closely linked with these cultural practices that have an effect on the sexuality of the adolescent girl are various myths that ensure conformity. Some of these cultural practices are discussed below:

A. Child Marriage/Forced Marriage

Child marriage and forced marriage are closely knitted. Under many African traditional cultures, the marriage of a girl is entirely the responsibility of her father if she has not attained the age of puberty. The father gives her away to a person of his choice without consulting her or her mother.

The practices of early marriage with all its sexual implications exist amongst people in certain parts of Africa. Under the TIV culture in Nigeria, girls are generally treated as "parcels to be exchanged in marriage." In an exchanged forced marriage known as "Kwase Yamwn Sha," a male family member exchanges his adolescent sister or ward for a girl in another family who then becomes his wife. In this type of marriage, the young adolescent girls are forced into marriage without being able to make a choice. Such girls are usually exchanged to a man who is elderly, ugly, diseased or disabled.

In Kenya, child marriages are not unique to a certain clan but exist in several cultures. Among the Maasai people in Kenya, as soon as a girl is circumcised she is married at the age of twelve. In the Hausa culture of Northern Nigeria, the culture of "Kunya" meaning modesty or shyness encourages girls to remain shy and obedient. The effect on sexuality is the forced marriage to an older man without question.

According to Usman, young girls that are forced into early marriages are indecently assaulted or "raped" by such older men. She further described a horrifying practice where such older husbands resort to incising, cutting or puncturing the genital of the young girls with sharp objects or blades to allow penetration during intercourse. This act has direct bearing on another sexual issue known as "marital rape" which, unfortunately, is not recognized in most of the legal systems in Africa.

In most parts of the Hausa land, child marriages are the rule rather than the exception. Children are usually married off between the ages of twelve and thirteen in large towns, and at younger ages in villages. In some parts of rural Hausa lands, a girl is married away to a boy or man at the very early age of five or six. It is said that such a young child goes to her marriage home at this age and is nursed and generally brought up by her husband. However, the husband does not have sexual relations with her until he thinks she is ready for it and certainly not below the age of twelve. In spite of the prevalence of child/forced marriages in many African countries, there are legal provisions prohibiting sexual intercourse with any girl under the age of fourteen. There is also a national policy on population in Nigeria that discourages early marriage.

Several reasons are adduced to support the cultural practice of child/forced marriage. The following are just a few of the reasons given. First, it prevents premarital sexual relationships. There is the belief that if a young girl is left unmarried after puberty she is bound to have premarital sexual relationships. Also, under many African cultures, the preservation of virginity before marriage is cherished, honored, rewarded and celebrated. The parents of a virgin bride are rewarded with gifts, the virgin is cherished by her husband and honored by his family. In the traditional societies, there is a celebration immediately the marriage is consummated and the bride is found to be a virgin. Similarly, there is the unjustified belief that a child bride comes to learn and venerate her husband from a very early age and will become firmly attached to him as she grows older. This is not always true as there have been cases of expressed hatred by the brides towards the chosen husbands leading to the child brides killing these husbands and running away. There is also the belief that at such a young age, a young adolescent girl has not reached the age of defiance and would accept her father's choice of a husband as a "good choice of a wise and matured father." Also, it is alleged that at such a young age, adolescents are more likely to be influenced in their choice of a husband based on affluence and looks. It is said that parents decide to marry them off before they make rash decisions. Lastly there is a mistaken notion by some older men who take child brides that sexual relation with young girls reenergizes them as men. There is no doubt that the cultural practices of forced/child marriages are capable of abuse. Greedy parents may marry off their daughters to older men for mercenary purposes while others give out adolescent children to royalties for purposes of prestige.

B. Female Circumcision/Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)

Female Circumcision, popularly known as Female Genital Mutilation, hereinafter referred to as FGM, is culturally considered proof of femininity and a "demonstration of a woman's courage." FGM is a collective name given to several different traditional ritualistic practices that involve the actual cutting of female genitals, either totally or partially, and the removal of sexual organ. There are basically three types of practices and they are briefly discussed below:

Clitoridectomy: The partial or total amputation of the clitoris, which is the female sexual organ.

Excision: The amputation of both the clitoris and the inner lips.

Infibulations: The removal of the clitoris, some or all of the labia minora and incisions in the labia majora to create a raw surface. These raw surfaces are either stitched together or kept in contact until the skin heals as a hood covering the urethra and most of the vagina.

Traditionally, FGM is carried out in unhygienic surroundings with the same instruments used for several girls as group excision is common. However, in modern days, practitioners are more aware of the risk of tetanus, HIV/Aids and extensive hemorrhaging.

This cultural practice, affecting the sexuality of the female adolescent upon who it is commonly practiced, crosses all social classes and backgrounds. In recent times, an increasing number of educated parents are opposed to it, but are sometimes powerless in the face of stiff cultural pressure. It is interesting to note that women are the perpetrators and have been accused of being the strongest supporters. In Burkina-Faso a magistrate claimed that in almost all cases of excision brought to trial it is mothers-in- law, grandmothers, aunts, and mothers who took the initiative to have the child excised.

In many Africa cultures, childhood ends by custom at puberty or marriage. It is very rare in African traditional cultures for the transition from childhood to adulthood to be measured by a precise date and a chronological age. FGM, therefore, has a symbolic value associated with adulthood and it is an important part of the initiation right of young women.

C. Cultural Practices

Under the Burkinabe culture in Burkina-Faso, excision takes place after the harvest and it is followed with music, dancing and feasting. In Peru, near Bobo-Dioulasso in Burkina-Faso, a girl is excised on the day of marriage itself and later honored with a festive ceremony. In recent times, the initiation aspect of excision no longer exists because females are now excised at a very young age. In Nigeria and Burkina-Faso, infibulations are less practiced and variations in the age at which excisions take place exist.

In the cultures of the Ijaws and Etsakos in the Bendel State of Nigeria, FGM is a premarital ritual. However, among the Urhobos and Isokos of Delta State of Nigeria, it is performed during a woman's first pregnancy. According to Eliah, the Sabiny people of Uganda cling to the age-old tradition of female circumcision. Under this culture, the preparation for the initiation ceremony of circumcision commences in the month of December of every year. This includes feasting, dancing and secret briefing which leads into a public celebration on the day the circumcision is done. According to Koso--Thomas, among the Mendes in Sierra Leone, the loud drumming, singing, dancing and shouting is said to drown the cries of female initiates during the ceremonial circumcision.

Female circumcision is a deeply rooted African practice held with much pride. Under the Samburu culture in East Africa, it is a rite of passage in which the girl is formally initiated to womanhood. Young girls are informed at a very young age about the importance of circumcision through songs and dances designed to have this message sunk deep into them. The circumcision ceremony is organized in a home and friends are invited to share in the "joy" of the family and in the passage of the young girl into adulthood. To show the importance of female circumcision among the Somali tribe in Kenya, there is a saying that "an uncircumcised girl is like a rotten carcass in the center of the house" and a circumcised girl is like a rose flower in a desert shrub." Legal Provisions

In all the countries where FGM is prevalent, the government has attempted to address the problems arising from the practice through means other than statutes. However, all the countries have constitutional provisions that could be used to address FGM. Only very few countries specifically criminalize the practice of FGM, among which are Ghana and Burkina-Faso. Many other countries have provisions in their respective penal laws that prohibit assaults or infliction of bodily harm to any person. In addition to these legal provisions, there are health policies in many of the African countries addressing the practice of FGM.

FGM is geographically common and widespread in Africa though unknown in certain African countries. Statistics show that the prevalence in Ethiopia is 90%, Nigeria 60%, Ghana 30% and Tanzania 10%. The practice is insignificant in South Africa and Zimbabwe and not practiced at all in Southern Sudan, and some Arabic speaking countries of Northern Africa, with the exception of Egypt.

. . .

Within a dynamic notion of culture, the issue of the protection of the sexuality of the adolescent girl is essential to cultural survival and continuity. The preservation of cultural identity and promotion of social and political cohesion are legitimate objectives. However, the right to belong, to contribute and to participate in ones community, as a full member should not be conditioned on the price of human suffering. This practice put young girls in the unjust position of having to jeopardize either their right to health and bodily integrity or the esteemed privilege of social acceptance. Their full right to full social integration should not be conditioned on the waiver of their constitutional guaranteed right to life, health and dignity of their person.

There are many problems within our culture that adolescent girls have to contend with. It has been argued that the morality and personality of an individual are shaped by the culture and the history of a given society. It is true that adolescent girls have rights and culture should not be used as an excuse for human rights abuses. It is also a fact that cultural practices are subject to Universal Human Rights Limitation. What is needed now is for the society at large to take note of the cry of the adolescent girl. Each sector has a duty to perform and a part to play. The pooling of efforts is the solution to her cry.

The government must manifest an even stronger political will, the non- governmental agencies must intensify their vigilance and campaigns against the acts discussed above must continue for the populace must be educated and informed about the continuous cry for help of the adolescent girl.

The focus of attention must shift from mainly punitive steps against the offender to preventive measures for the adolescent girl. No amount of penalty to the perpetrators can hope to repair the damages caused to these young ones. Reparation is not the answer to their cry because their purity must remain unscathed and preserved for them to enjoy their adolescent life now and their adult life in the future.