Harmful traditional practices that affect our health. I hope this is the most suitable topic for this explosive write-up? Or should I call it harmful traditional and cultural practices that affects health in Nigeria, better still harmful traditional health practices in Nigeria.
I am going to be very personal on this article probably because am a Nigerian and I have been a victim or seen victims of harmful traditional practices in Nigeria and its consequences on our health. What is the meaning of harmful traditional practices? They are a culture-based negative practices seen as norms because they have been propagated from generation-to-generation and are targeted against women, children and the girl-child. It is a form of violence against women, children and the girl child.
Culture is the total way of life of people in terms of language(communication), marriage, dressing, food, housing, occupation, burial, family structure.…. the list is endless. Our culture is what defines us as a people. It is dynamic and not static, meaning practices that are harmful to our health and well-being should be expunged, but have we done that? Women, children, the girl-child are usually the target or victims of these unhealthy practices
I will start by asking you what harmful traditional practices have you seen in your environment, tribe or religion that affects health and decreases the quality of life that you want to stop? Well, let me tell you my experiences first; you tell me yours later.
1.Scarification is harmful traditional practices
This involves unhygienic and deliberate cutting of the body as a form of treatment or remedy for numerous diseases like swollen abdomen, low back pain, chest pain, fractures and dislocations. Scarification as a form of treatment for ‘big spleen’ originated from the Esan people of Edo state who then treated the “ude” (spleen) of a child with malaria or sickle cell anemia with crude and unhygienic cutting around the area of the spleen on the abdomen without any form of anaesthesia. Perhaps this harmful african traditional practices was exported to other parts of the country. The child is subjected to a lot of pain during the procedure, there is profuse bleeding, infections like hepatitis B, tetanus and HIV are usually contracted from this procedure. Scarification causes psychological trauma and social stigma later in the child during adulthood.
2.Female genital mutilation/ genital cutting
Depending on the type, female genital cutting is the removal of the clitoris, labia minora, and /or labia majora of the vagina with the belief that it will reduce female promiscuity. This unwholesome practice against the females spread all across every culture in Nigeria. Though, the Nigerian law now strongly abolishes it; female genital mutilation is still very much practiced in every nook and crannies of the country. The problem is poor enforcement of the laws. Genital cutting is an infringement on the sexual rights of females, it is a common cause of vesico-vaginal fistula in Nigeria, vaginal stenosis, difficulty in giving birth, bleeding and a mode of transmission of hepatitis B, HIV and tetanus. FGM causes psychosexual and psychosexual trauma for the lady.
3.Male child is king, girl-child is relegated to the background
This is one of the harmful african traditional practices. In Nigeria, it is commoner in the northern part. We need to stop or start campaigning against this practice and give equal opportunities to both sexes. Here, the male child is fed better than the girl-child, sent to school and given better opportunities to excel at the expense of the girl- child. So much premium is placed on the male child in Africa that couples may consider them themselves childless without a male-child. They continue to give birth in search of a male-child and the female child is deprived of all the basic needs required for human development and the family, nation and the society suffers for it. The child learns from the mother first before any other member of the family. What is a child going to learn from an illiterate, uneducated and ignorant mother? Now how is the mother going to know the importance of immunization, breastfeeding and how to prepare oral rehydration salt solution for the child with diarrhea. Wont this deprived woman use insecticide treated net to grow tomatoes in the farm at the expense of preventing malaria for her child? We should have a rethink and stop the girl-child discrimination.
This is a trend especially in Benin-city, Edo state, and other parts of Nigeria that has refused to stop. I don’t need to tell you the consequences of this harmful traditional practice . As a medical student in the department of burns and plastic in University of Benin, we had of to 3 cases of acid bathe per week and the purposes was most times passion driven. The incidence and prevalence of acid bathe in Benin was higher with girl-on-girl violence over a man than otherwise. The outcomes of acid bathe on health are terrible: It leads to acid burns, pains, disfigurement of the body, social stigma, psychological trauma, contractures, infections, blindness, deafness, baldness, societal rejection, can make victims handicapped and even sometimes cause death from complications of the burns and suicide.
5.Fattening ceremony before marriage
Though it sounds nice, it is one of the harmful traditional practices. Being fat is not a crime but it has its health issues. Fattening ceremony before marriage is common among the akwa-ibom, efik, anang and Ibibio people found in Akwa-ibom and Cross-River states of Nigeria. Here, the bride before marriage is locked up in a room and fed fat for her husband. Slim ladies are considered unfit for marriage. These fattened ladies later become chubby, plump, overweight and obese. The health risks of obesity are beyond the scope of this article but heart diseases, stroke, and risk of difficult delivery from macrosomic (big) babies are not uncommon with fattened maidens.
6.Women only are the cause of infertility
Note the meaning of infertility medically. It is the inability of a couple to achieve pregnancy after 12 months of unprotected and ejaculatory sex for at least 3 times a week. This means both the man and woman in a marriage have huge role to play in procreation. But in Nigeria and Africa, women only are responsible for infertility, the man is innocent. It is only the woman that is subjected to series of gynaecological tests by her husband and his family members. This unwholesome belief puts the woman under pressure making her seek help anywhere and even with quacks to get a baby. During her ‘search’ she may patronize quacks and fall victim to the many harmful health practices you can think of.
7.Mistreatment and maltreatment of Widows
Being a widow and widowhood is a very terrible experience especially in igboland and other parts of the country. The wife is accused of killing her late husband and made to drink the dirty water used to wash his corpse, booed, manhandled, beaten and ostracized. She and her children may be denied her husband’s properties. Sometimes, she is driven from her home and made penniless. The untold psychological trauma caused by this harmful cultural practice can’t be imagined. The water from the corpse given to the woman to drink can be a source of infection like lassa fever, ebola virus fever etc. Though, there have been campaigns against mistreatment of widows lately but I feel it is not enough. Laws needs to be enacted but at the state and federal level to curb this unhealthy practice.
8.Cutting the umbilical cord with unsterilized sharp objects
Poor cord care is one of the types of harmful traditional practices in Nigeria. In some cultures in Nigeria especially in villages, shanties and slums; broken bottles, rusted knives, cutlasses are still used to cut the umbilical cord of a newborn. It has also been reported that cow dung and urine is still been used to dress the umbilical stump! These traditional practices predispose the child to infections like neonatal tetanus, hepatitis B, HIV and sepsis. This is the reason Nigeria has not still been declared free from neonatal tetanus, milestone other nations have achieved.
9.Child marriage/ forced marriage/ arranged marriage
Compared to the southern part of our beloved country, the north takes the lead in this one. It is not something hidden anymore, it has become a ceremony and shame that has refused to go away. The girl-child of 13,14, 15 16 and 17 that is supposed to be in school has been turn into a bride forced and arranged into early marriage to become baby mothers. The dangers of early marriage are adolescent pregnancies, vesico-vaginal fistula, obstructed labour, drop-out from school, social stigma, infant mortality, maternal deaths, ignorance, poverty and diseases.
As far as I am concerned, witch hunting/burning is one of the numerous harmful traditional practices in nigeria targeted against women and children. It is common in Akwa-ibom and Cross-River states even in these modern times and I think the government should start making arrests of perpetrators. Here, children are pronounced witches by some pastors and diviners, parents are told that their child(ren) is the cause of poverty, loss of jobs, untold suffering and death of a family member. The child in return is starved of food, abandoned, chained, beaten to death or even thrown in the river to die.
11.Poor attitude to cleaning our environment
You heard of the recent mudslide in Sierra Leone that took the lives of over 400 persons? What about the recent flooding across Nigeria? Have you ever been in a bus to see fellow passengers throw wastes through the windows with reckless abandon? The environment gives back to us what we give to it. We show very poor attitude to taking care of our environment. We dump refuse in indiscriminately and in un-designated places, like in the gutters, drainage, roads, markets, schools, bushes, rivers, dams, streams etc. We cut down trees without replacing them, defaecate in water bodies, urinate indiscriminately, refuse to clear bushes around our homes (waiting for the landlord) even when we know it can harbor snakes, waiting for the government to clear the gutters around homes, bush burning………the list the negative attitude to our environment is endless. It is so bad that environmental sanitation law had to be enacted. In our markets, the state and local governments have now made environmental sanitation mandatory! These says a lot about our attitude. The consequences of our actions are flooding, mudslide, epidemics like lassa fever, cholera, ebola, food poisoning, typhoid fever etc. and deaths.
12.Breast ironing is harmful traditional practices
“I was a young, my breasts just started coming out, I was shy, happy for my growth but terrified. I didn’t want my parents, family members, or neighbours to know. I have seen want was done to other girls who grow breasts at my age, I didn’t want to have that same bitter and painful experience.It is believed that adolescent girls that develop breasts very early end up to be promiscuous. I hid my budding breasts in thick clothes for long but for how long? It was like hiding pregnancy. I could not hide it anymore. My mother, together with other women caught me, surrounded me, and used hot grinding stone to iron my breasts inside. Goooooooooood! Nothing could be more painful not even labour pains. Eshem (my name) this practice must be stopped.” This is a story a woman I knew personally told me while I was in secondary school. Just imagine her agony.
13.Removal of the epiglottis
This is among the lists of harmful traditional practices. The epiglottis is an organ in the throat that prevents food and dust particles from entering the windpipe. It makes breathing easy.
The practice of removing the epiglottis is common with the Wukari people of Taraba state. Here when a native is 5, irrespective of the sex, crude method is used to cut-off their epiglottis without anaesthesia. Pain, infections like tetanus, Hiv, hepatitis B, sepsis is usually the short them complication of this procedure. For the long-term complications, the harmful traditional practices, make the wukari people whose epiglottis was removed prone to choking and respiratory tract infections.
14.Discrimination of the mentally ill is harmful traditional practices
In Nigeria, apart from the strange cultural beliefs that mental illnesses are caused by spiritual attacks and it cannot be managed or treated; we also discriminate the mentally ill by treating them badly. We beat them, bound and chain them for months to years, starve them or sometimes release them to the public to roam. Recently it was reported in one of the dailies that a certain family in one of the states in Nigeria bound and chained their mentally ill son for up to 18 months starving him and without treatment. With this maltreatment, persons that are mentally ill will never recover and will continue to be burden to themselves, family and society. Always remember anybody can be mentally ill.
harmful traditional practices:unhygienic male circumcision
Other harmful traditional practices that affect our health and we need to stop include:
- Refusing to obey traffic laws- no wonder 50% of road traffic accident happen in Nigeria
- We think taking a walk translates to suffering and poverty- obesity is on the rise in Nigeria
- Visiting quack doctors for treatment- experimenting with our health.
- Claiming/prophesying we are well even when it is obvious we are sick.
- Sunning/drying gari along the road despite several campaigns against these harmful practices- lassa fever
- Using starvation as punishment for disobedient children
- Using razor blade to cut children as punishment for stealing.
- Letting illness get out of hand before going to the hospital.
- Refusing to save accident victims- running away from accident scenes. How will you feel if you are a victim of an accident and passers-by refuse to help you?
- Unhygienic male circumcision.
- Only the father as head of the family decides when a family member should visit the hospital when sick.
- Staphylococcus is the cause of every ailment in Nigeria including infertility, fibroids and mental illness. Quacks now capitalize on this belief.
- Adding uncooked salt to food- worsens hypertension
- Belief that epilepsy is a contagious disease thereby refusing to touch or help epileptic patients during an episode is one of the harmful practices.
- These days nursing mothers now cherish their breasts to their babies. They now think breastfeeding their babies sag the breasts- breastfeeding practices is declining yearly in Nigeria. Not breastfeeding for fear of sagging breasts is one of the trending practices today in Nigeria.
- Refusing to give a child meat, fish, eggs and snail for fear of the child stealing.
- In hausaland,” yankan gishiri or angurya” is a cause of vvf in Nigeria.
- Self-medication- in Nigeria, the law only permits doctors, nurses and community health extension workers to prescribe drugs.
- Using urine to wash the face and eyes when we have appollo (conjunctivitis)
- Some cultures still believe that immunization is a taboo- no wonder, we are still battling with polio.
- Extensive tribal marking in yorubaland.
- Ritual killings.
- Child labour.
- Putting a baby’s feet on fire during convulsion.
- Wrong belief that sickle cell children die at 21
How to stop harmful traditional practices? The best ways of preventing harmful traditional practices in Nigeria is through mass education and campaigns against these unwholesome practices by governments, individuals and NGOs. Effective legislation and enforcement of these laws through arrest and prosecution of offenders or perpetrators. The consequences of harmful traditional practices in Nigeria and anywhere are grave, if you see something; say something! Let us stop this form of violence against our women, children and the girl-child.
CAVEAT: This article is a product of painstaking interview (by the Nigeria Health Blog) of individuals from various tribes in Nigeria who have been victims or have seen victims of harmful traditional practices and strongly wish these practices to stop. They gave full authorization for this publication.