Advertisement

FGM In, Affirmative Action Out - Where Does Liberia Stand on Women’s Rights?

FGM In, Affirmative Action Out - Where Does Liberia Stand on Women’s Rights?

Monrovia - When the taboo subject of female circumcision, also known as female genital mutilation (FGM) became the subject of national debate in 2012, many leaders spoke out against the practice and the government prohibited the Sande societies which practiced it.


Report by Mae Azango This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


 “Too many of our countries have yet to muster the courage to ban the irreparable harm inflicted by genital mutilation on young girls in traditional societies,” President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

But the act itself was never made illegal, even as other West African countries such as The Gambia and Nigeria have banned it.

In a recent article in the Guardian newspaper, anti-FGM campaign group, Equality Now, asked why Liberia - a country headed by Africa’s first elected woman leader and a Nobel laureate – had not followed suit.

President Sirleaf has courted international favor with comments condemning the practice, such as an international event on violence against women last year: “Too many of our countries have yet to muster the courage to ban the irreparable harm inflicted by genital mutilation on young girls in traditional societies.”

But at home, her strikes are far weaker. A domestic violence bill, which might offer women some protection against FGM as well as other acts of violence, has been pushed through the House of Representatives to be passed but with the removal of the FGM aspect from it.

 “I am sorry to say I voted against the Domestic Violence bill to be passed, because other lawmakers demanded that the FGM or circumcision part be removed from it,” says Montserrado Representative, Josephine Francis.

Fear for being voted out

Madam Francis told this reporter that other lawmakers were saying if the FGM component is left in, they will not be voted for during the elections in 2017.

“I wonder why they passed the bill based on getting votes from the districts, when many of them won’t be re -elected anyway,” Madam Francis added.

Liberia is among few other West African countries, including Guinea Mali and Sierra Leone that is finding it difficult to do away with the ill-fated practice due to upholding strong cultural beliefs and traditions, even against the advice of medical practitioners.

Experts say removing a woman’s clitoris, as done in FGM, contributes to maternal mortality and have sexual and reproductive health issues.

Diehard Tradition

FGM was banned this year in Nigeria and 18 other African countries have outlawed the practice, including Central African Republic, Egypt and South Africa.

Traditions are diehard in Liberia, according to Meima Karneh, Gender Assistant Minister for Planning and Policy Research. In that the Traditional people are attached to the Sande and Poro and they fight even harder to keep it.

“We visited the ten counties that practice Poro and Sande societies and engaged the Zoes and elders to see reason in modernizing the Sande and removing the circumcision aspect from it,” said Karneh.

“But when we stopped engaging them for a period, they tend to forget and go back to their old ways.”

In an interview at the Gender Ministry in Monrovia, Karneh said the Sande societies had some good values they practice because they teach girls how to understand their body and cater to their families.

So the government does not intend to outlaw the Sande, but is only asking the traditional people to remove the circumcision aspect from it and still teach those good attributes.

She said the Sande bush also interferes with the education of girls because it takes them from school while their peers are advancing.

“When the girl child returns from the Sande Bush, she feels ashamed to go back to the same class because she has grown bigger for the class, so she gets married instead,” said Karneh.

“This is why our main concern is not to take the little and underage children to the Sande, because they would be too small to learn anything and it won’t help them but harm their education.”

Empty Bill

Minister of Gender, Children and Social Protection Julia Duncan Cassell also expressed her frustration over the passage of the Domestic Violence Bill without banning FGM.  

 “The lower House, which is the House of Representatives, passed an empty bill without any substance before they went for the break, and they passed the bill and removed the FGM aspect from it.

It was better not to pass the bill at all, than to pass it and remove the most important violation against women, which is FGM.

I will make sure President Sirleaf hears about this and make sure the House of Senate does not pass the bill,” lamented Minister Cassel.

Much to Minister Cassell’s chagrin, the Senate recently threw out the Domestic Violence bill before it could be argued on grounds that Liberia cannot do away with its culture and traditions of the land.

However Senator Jewel Howard Taylor said all was not lost in the fight to ban FGM. “Due to the negativity that came from the floor, the bill was withdrawn for us to go back and do our consultations.

Thank goodness the bill left the floor because it would have been thrown out of the window as it happened once in the 52 legislature, when Hon Teah said: ‘Let this bill get off the floor and never find its way back here’, but Senate has acutely put back that provision of FGM as violence against women,” Senator Taylor said.  

Senator Taylor added that perceptions of people were changing because 25 years ago in Liberia, nobody could talk about domestic violence, because woman were considered properties of their husbands, and the husbands could do whatever they wanted to do to their wives. 

 “Any man knows that if he slaps his wife, he will go to jail for three years.

It will serve as a deterrent to other men because no man would want to go to jail for beating his wife. Domestic violence is unacceptable to the women of Liberia and I think all of us will ensure that the bill passes.”

Too many times, bills to improve the livelihood of women and to free them from violence has been trampled upon, overlooked and thrown out, as the recent Affirmative Action Bill.

The bill, which was to give women 30 percent participation in politics, suffered a major setback when lawmakers of the lower House refused to passed the bill on grounds that it had to be enacted upon the electoral laws of Liberia next year.

Few weeks ago, the Senate had passed the same Affirmative Action Bill rejected by the lower House.

This recent action of the lower House is believed to keep women at the bottom of poverty ladder, women’s rights activist say.

Sticking To Ill-Fated Tradition - Why Not Ban FGM? 

According to the FGM National Clinical Group, a campaign group based in the United Kingdom, the history of female genital mutilation is not well known but the practice dates back at least 2,000 years.

It is not known when or where the tradition of FGM originated from. It was believed that it was practiced in ancient Egypt as a sign of distinction amongst the aristocracy.

Some believe it started during the slave trade when black slave women entered ancient Arab societies.

Some believe FGM began with the arrival of Islam in some parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Others believe the practice developed independently among certain ethnic groups in sub-Saharan Africa as part of puberty rites.

Overall, in the history, it was believed that FGM would ensure women’s virginity and reduction in the female desire.

The FGM debate was sparked all over and again when the House of Representatives last week refused to the pass the Domestic Violence Act with the FGM portion in it.

The argument of some representatives is that banning the practice infringes on the culture and tradition of those who practice it.

Others have been bold enough to cite that passing the Act with the FGM portion intact would be a political suicide they were not willing to commit, with the general and Presidential elections in a year from now. 

Traditions are diehard in Liberia, according to Meima Karneh, Gender Assistant Minister for Planning and Policy Research. In that the Traditional people are attached to the Sande and Poro and they fight even harder to keep it.

“We visited the ten counties that practice Poro and Sande societies and engaged the Zoes and elders to see reason in modernizing the Sande and removing the circumcision aspect from it,” added Karneh.

“But when we stopped engaging them for a period, they tend to forget and go back to their old ways.”

Liberia is among just three countries in the whole West Africa still practicing FGM with Mali and Sierra Leone being the other two countries.

It is the firmness of those against the ban on FGM and the argument they make that calls for not just rebuke of the practice but the justification they give.

Those against the banning of FGM say it is an African tradition and it would be an affront to the customs and traditions of the African people.

Not only that, they claim that banning of the practice is another encroachment of the African culture by western civilization, a pattern that is blamed today for the backwardness of the continent.

We are not prepared for such debate as who is responsible for the backwardness of the continent but we want to make the case for a move that will only benefit the women and girls who would become victims of this godforsaken tradition.

Apart from the rights portion of the practice—where women and girls are sometimes forcibly recruited in the Sande Society—and the fact that their stay there robs them of the opportunity to go to school, the practice poses grave health risk to them.

Liberia has one of the world’s highest maternal rates, with 993 deaths in 100,000 births, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

This is not just because of lack of prenatal or maternal care, the lack of health facilities and healthcare workers basically in the hinterland. It is significantly due to the complication women face during childbirth.

Medical experts say the clitoris plays a major role not only in the sexual activeness of women and girls but also that it assists them during delivery.

Moreover, the unsanitary and unhygienic fashion in which the practice is done—using one cutting instrument on more than one person—is another issue.

This makes the spread of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including the incurable HIV/AIDS.

So, we are left to ponder over whether we keep a tradition that has no benefits or ban the practice to save a lot of lives. For us, we prefer the latter.

Who says that things, including tradition cannot be changed?

Who says that some traditional practices are not counterproductive? Chinua Achebe in his famous Things Fall Apart criticized the tradition of killing twins on ground that they are evil. We, too, decry the furtherance of this unhealthy practice of FGM. 

Advertisement