Human Rights Challenges from Nigeria to Harlem


Mural at the Women’s Health Community Center in Harlem. / Bryan Collier

“The American Dream is beautiful…but it is a bit delusional,” says Aretta Uba with a playful smile on her face. Uba, 32, was born and raised in East Harlem. When she talks about her family, her slight Nigerian accent is difficult to hide. “My mother was from a town near Lagos; she came to the U.S. as a single woman, at the age of 18; by the time she was 25, she already had four children.”

Uba was the second to last child. A sociology student at CUNY, she grew up in a very closed community in diaspora. Everyone was either from Nigeria or a neighboring country: her classmates; her teachers; the people at church each Sunday. They were all either first or second generation immigrants. “We were all in New York, but it felt different than what most people think. It was not the New York that you see in the movies, with the tall buildings and the suited men getting in the cabs. We were the cab drivers,” she says with a tone of irony.

What was most challenging to her, however, was growing up to become a woman in this closed environment.  “When people talk about things like forced marriage or genital cutting, they like to believe that it is many miles away. They don’t realize that these things happen every day, in their own backyard.”

Those two hidden issues in the U.S. were the were part of a broader discussion at the 61st edition of the Commission on the Status of Women in March. In one of the side events, called “Leaving No one Behind”, representatives from different countries discussed genital cutting and forced marriage as gross human rights violations, but they focused on Africa and the Middle East.

Most of the cases occur in that region, as well as in South East Asia. According to UNICEF, prevalence of cutting in countries like Somalia, Egypt and Guinea, reaches levels above 90 percent; Sudan, Ethiopia and Mali follow with rates of up to 88 percent. Nigeria falls in a lower category, with a rate of 27%.

Compared to those numbers, the isolated cases in the U.S. seem to a much smaller problem. Human Rights violations, however, are not a matter of statistics, panelists said. As Nata Menabde, executive director of the World Health Organization, put it, “one, is too many.”

The panel was co-organized by the permanent missions of Italy and Canada, along with the World Health Organization and UN Women, to bring light to the many challenges that many teenage girls continue to live around the world due to violence and discrimination; little focus, however, was put in the communities that are only a few blocks away from the Headquarters of the UN, in East Harlem.

In places, like New York, where the percentages of FGM are small, authorities are more lax in addressing the practices, according to Uba.

“FGM (female genital mutilation) has been illegal in New York for many years,” Uba says, “but that does not prevent people from doing it”. She recalls that as child “girls used to go on this special vacation, out of town. It was never explicitly said, but we all knew why they were leaving. They were going to a state where their parents could find a doctor who would practice infibulations.” Fortunately she escaped this fate.

Customs like genital cutting are commonly the center of debate at the UN. On the one hand, Western countries call to transform cultural practices that are demeaning to women and perpetuate inequality among genders. On the other hand, African and Asian states often appeal to cultural relativism, the idea that human rights should be seen through the lens of each community’s beliefs and practices. To them, the attempt to modify customs in the name of Human Rights, is interventionist and a new way of perpetuating cultural colonialism.

The extent to which these practices affect women, however, is devastating. “FGM is, of course, a matter of health” Uba says.  “But it is also a matter of dignity. It is a way of society of saying to you that you are worth less than men; that you do not deserve to be treated as an equal. And genital cutting is just a way of materializing that discrimination.”

Another topic of gender inequality is in countries like Nigeria is child marriage, often forced upon girls. According to Girls Not Brides, a global partnership of over 750 nonprofit organizations working to eradicate forced marriage, 43 percent of girls in Nigeria marry before the age of 18; almost half of them marry before their 15th birthday.

Nigeria is not an exception. According to UNICEF, over 700 million women who are alive today, married before the age of 18. Most live in South East Asia and Africa, with India being home to almost a third of the marriages.

While the focus of advocacy against child marriage has been abroad, the issue has escaped much scrutiny here. New York has law, passed in 1929, that allows children as young as 14 to marry. Even if not many girls are married in the U.S. under such legislation, others continue to be taken elsewhere to be married without their consent.

On that topic, however, Uba is not as condemnatory: “It is easy as an outsider to say no to practices like that, or even to polygamy. But you have to understand the context. In a country like Nigeria, land is everything, and since women cannot inherit land, if you do not marry, you are nobody,” she says. “Arranged marriage, to many, is a way of securing their daughter’s future.”

In many case the consequences of child marriages, are tragic. Gustavo Gonzalez, Senior Advisor at UN Women explains that child brides tend to have lower access to quality health services, less educational opportunities and face much higher rates of domestic violence. The United Nations Population Fund also reports that since many child brides become pregnant while still being adolescents, they have a high risk of facing complications in pregnancy and during childbirth.

“Yes, change must come, but at what pace?” Uba asks. “If it comes too fast, you leave many girls unprotected, because the law changes but reality doesn’t.”

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