I will never forget that afternoon. It was a hot day, and I was relieved that we had almost finished the shoot. I don’t even know how we started filming it, but we did. I will never forget the smell of hot metal, sweat, and then the metallic smell of fresh blood. I will never forget the girl’s scream.
Most of all though, I will never forget the look on the girl’s mother’s face when it was done. She was smiling. She was happy. I think that was the most painful thing about that situation, even more so than the physical pain- her ignorance of what she had just inflicted on her daughter.
If I had any doubts about what I was doing, about the subject matter of my first feature length film, they were banished by what I had just seen. I became ever more determined to finish it, to tell this story and hopefully challenge the idea, the belief that this practice was necessary.
Like many of us who grow up in the cities, the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is not something we naturally think about. I mean I guess we are aware of it in an abstract way, but thankfully, for many of us, it is not something that we will ever have to personally deal with.
I actually had another movie in mind for my first movie, but a scriptwriter, Gbenga Adesanya, pitched the idea for this film to me. I read the script and I loved it. The film is called ‘Onikola’ and it’s such a beautiful story, a love story. I left the meeting thinking about it, and I got home and I did a bit of research and discovered that despite previous efforts to curb it, it was still practiced in half the country.
There have been gains, all the research done by international agencies like UNICEF shows that the numbers have been dropping thanks to the efforts by government agencies and NGOs but it is not a sustained drop and once the projects and initiatives run their course the decline stops. The numbers show that it has been reduced, but not completely eradicated.
According to UNICEF, the practice had dropped by about half in Nigeria according to results of a 20-year study. However, more still needs to be done. Nigeria’s population is vast, and this meant that the country contributed at least a quarter of the incidents worldwide. With thirty million people in danger of FGM worldwide, this roughly means that at least 7.5 million girls in Nigeria are still in danger. We cannot afford to be relaxed but we are. These days almost nothing, or let me say minimal efforts are going to combat this perhaps because we think we’re winning in the fight against it. Well, my experience, my witnessing a young girl get circumcised shows that it is still prevalent.
I felt that we needed passionate people, people who were passionate about young women. Not just about their condition and their fundamental human rights, although that is very important, but about the way they perceive the world, the way they think. I felt we needed to do something, consistently and continually to fight the gender inequality and gender based violence that is meted upon these young girls by their parents, by their mothers due to a warped sense that it is what society wants.
At first I thought that perhaps we could change the law; make FGM illegal. Maybe I could target my campaign at those with the power to make and enforce laws in society. Who knows, maybe that would have worked elsewhere, but not here in Nigeria, where we are our own local government chairmen and where we provide our own amenities and security.
Would people listen to the government? And in some of those far-flung rural areas where the practice is rife, could the law even be properly enforced?
And this is before the fact that the lawmakers in Nigeria’s highest legislative house recently voted to keep a portion of the constitution that effectively allowed child marriage intact. Something tells me the rights of the girl child are not too high on their list of priorities.
Anyway, I don’t believe that Female Genital Mutilation will be combated with force and statutes. Looking at the reasons that people do it for instance is enlightening. While those of us looking in from the outside see it as horrible and barbaric, to the practitioners of it, they are merely doing their civic duty.
According to UNICEF, the practice is rooted in traditional beliefs and societal pressure to conform. It is seen as a social norm. People believe that it is a means of maintaining the chastity of their young girls. That if they don’t do it, their children will become prostitutes. Other people believe that their children will die if they don’t circumcise their daughters.
In a University of Ilorin paper by A.A. Abiodun et al, they found research that showed that in certain ethnic groups in Nigeria, the women felt it made them more feminine and thus more attractive to men. The bitter irony here is that if you were to ask most men, the majority probably don’t care or rank it high on their list of things they find attractive in a woman.
I am passionate about this because I can see that the parents who circumcise their daughters do so not to hurt them, but out of love, out of a desire to protect. They want their daughters to have a good opportunity in life and they wouldn’t want to do anything to limit that child’s chances at a good life especially health wise and psychologically.
The main problem is that the mothers, even though they have gone through the pain of circumcision feel it is normal what they are going through and that everyone goes through it. In my opinion, the way to combat is therefore not through law and decree saying don’t do it, but actually helping them to see the effects.
I realise I can’t change the minds of people with a film. It sounds counterproductive to say, but I don’t think it will change decades of doctrine. When we were making the film, I decided not to flog people over the head that FGM was negative. My message in this film was to parents that they should stop doing this to their daughters; let her grow up and decide. Brainwash her if you want, but let the decision be hers at the end of the day.
People do all sorts of body modification and augmentation and if an adult woman decided she wanted to get a circumcision, it’s her decision at least. As it stands right now, the practice is done to girls who are completely vulnerable and have no say as to whether they want it done to them or not.
A big challenge for us was remaining culturally sensitive. Despite my feelings about the practice, I realized I could not rush in there and castigate centuries of culture, no matter how senseless it was. That’s the easiest way to lose your audience. If we did that, they’d never listen to us. I think couching our message in a love story really helps soften the bitter pill.
I am African, there are many things I hold dear to my heart that might not make sense in the Western-centric world we live in these days, but that is what makes me African; so I am not about to tell someone that the culture they grew up with, the culture of their beloved parents and grandparents is wrong.
Yes, they love their parents, and yes maybe FGM was good and right during their time, but are they sure that when it is gone, it will be the best thing to leave their daughters with? I just want them to think.
This is why I made ‘Onikola’. We just finished post-production and I’m very proud of the final product. I’m hoping that this film, and the foundation that I’ve started will reach into the communities where this practice is rife and hopefully educate them that there is a better way.
Actually, just educating them in general would be great. It’s only through education that we can end this. If people were educated, maybe they could question things more. Like, if not being circumcised causes the girl to become a prostitute how come there are some circumcised prostitutes?
We could educate them that this is not something that everyone does; that it is actually in most of the world it is the exception rather than the norm.
What I am trying to do with this movie is to talk to my generation. If it stops with us, then our children are safe. My generation can still be reached as far as female circumcision is concerned, and it is my generation that is having kids now. I feel I am still young enough and if I work hard and dedicate a lot of time to this, then maybe I can make some headway.
I have always been the kind of person who wants to help others. I’m very empathic and when I read the script and saw the research it really lit a fire under me. I hope my movie will help the movement to stop Female Genital Mutilation. If I can just reach one parent to think about the effects, or maybe inspire one young girl to stand up for her right to the sanctity of her own body, for her right to be free from all forms of violence both physical and mental; if ‘Onikola’ can do this, then it will have been a totally worthwhile enterprise.