Liberia: Male-Dominated Legislature Should Not Be Left to Decide What’s Best for Women

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A MALE-DOMINATED Legislature on Thursday unilaterally decided what’s best for women with a decision to erase the practices of the Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), widely carried out mostly in western and northern from the Domestic Violence Law of 2014.

THE DECISION DEALS  a major to blow to activist who for years have been pressing to characterized FGM as a human rights violation against young girls, thus coming to the conclusion that the practice is no longer domestic violence or abuse, but rather traditionally and culturally to compromise with the country’s heritage.

ADDING HER VOICE to the debate Thursday, Vice President Jewel Howard Taylor urged the women of Liberia to join her in raising their voices against the passage of the controversial law.

SPEAKING TO FRONTPAGEAFRICA shortly after the bill passed Thursday, the Vice President lamented: “Today, the male-dominated Liberian legislature, passed the long-awaited Domestic Violence Law, but removed a very critical component; the section which made Female Genital Mutilation illegal under our laws. As a champion of the rights of women, I categorically denounce this decision. FGM is a violation of woman’s right to choose and human rights; which affects her physically and emotionally for the rest of her life. I therefore call upon the women of Liberia to join me in raising our voices to condemn this practice.”

TODAY, THERE ARE only ten women in the national legislature – one in the Senate and nine in the lower house, a glaring disparity of representation that speaks volume about the unfair makeup contributing to the undermining of gender-sensitive issues such as the Domestic Violence Law.

QUITE RECENTLY, inter agencies within the United Nations, comprising the United Nations Human Rights Commission, the Joint United Nations Program on HIVAIDS, the United Nations Development Program, the Economic Commission for Africa, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, United Nations Population Fund, the United Nations Refugees Agency, the United Nations Development Fund for Women and the World Health Organization urged all States, international and national organizations, civil society and communities to uphold the rights of girls and women, while affirming the respective agencies commitment to the elimination of female genital mutilation within a generation

THE ORGANIZATIONS also called on those bodies and communities to develop, strengthen, and support specific and concrete actions directed towards ending female genital mutilation.

WHILE THERE MAY be some who believe in the cultural aspect of the practice, health experts all agree that the overall rate of decline in the prevalence of female genital mutilation has been slow, repeatedly stressing a global imperative to strengthen work for the elimination of the practice, which is essential for the achievement of many of the Millennium Development Goals. 

THE TERM, ‘female genital mutilation’ (also called ‘female genital cutting’ and ‘female genital mutilation/cutting’) refers to all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. 

Between 100 and 140 million girls and women in the world are estimated to have undergone such procedures, and 3 million girls are estimated to be at risk of undergoing the procedures every year. 

Female genital mutilation, which has been reported to occur in all parts of the world, but it is most prevalent in: the western, eastern, and north-eastern regions of Africa, some countries in Asia and the Middle East and among certain immigrant communities in North America and Europe, has no known health benefits. 

IN FACT, ACCORDING to the UN inter agencies, the practice is known to be harmful to girls and women in many ways. 

THE AGENCIES CONCLUDED: “First and foremost, it is painful and traumatic. The removal of or damage to healthy, normal genital tissue interferes with the natural functioning of the body and causes several immediate and long-term health consequences. For example, babies born to women who have undergone female genital mutilation suffer a higher rate of neonatal death compared with babies born to women who have not undergone the procedure. Communities that practice female genital mutilation report a variety of social and religious reasons for continuing with it. Seen from a human rights perspective, the practice reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes, and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women.”

ADDITIONALLY, according to the agencies, female genital mutilation is nearly always carried out on minors and is therefore a violation of the rights of the child. “The practice also violates the rights to health, security and physical integrity of the person, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to life when the procedure results in death.”

Inter agencies within the United Nations, comprising the United Nations Human Rights Commission, the Joint United Nations Program on HIVAIDS, the United Nations Development Program, the Economic Commission for Africa, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, United Nations Population Fund, the United Nations Refugees Agency, the United Nations Development Fund for Women and the World Health Organization urged all States, international and national organizations, civil society and communities to uphold the rights of girls and women, while affirming the respective agencies commitment to the elimination of female genital mutilation within a generation

WHILE DECADES OF prevention work undertaken by local communities, governments, and national and international organizations have contributed to a reduction in the prevalence of female genital mutilation in some areas, agencies note that communities that have employed a process of collective decision-making have been able to abandon the practice. “Indeed, if the practicing communities decide themselves to abandon female genital mutilation, the practice can be eliminated very rapidly. Several governments have passed laws against the practice, and where these laws have been complemented by culturally-sensitive education and public awareness-raising activities, the practice has declined. National and international organizations have played a key role in advocating against the practice and generating data that confirm its harmful consequences. The African Union’s Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa, and its Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa constitute a major contribution to the promotion of gender equality and the elimination of female genital mutilation.”

GOVERNMENTS PAST and present in Liberia, have never shown any particular interest in allocating enough money for health care which begs the question why are members of the national legislature validating a practice when they are making no effort to include in the budget, funds to help communities carry out the practice with the best interest of the young girls in the plans. How much is government willing to invest in creating awareness and investing in ensuring that those who carry out the practice have the right tools to ensure that these young girls are not scarred for life or a practice resulting in tragedy? How much is the government willing to invest in training the right traditional doctors to avoid lapses and deaths as a result of a practice gone wrong?

SIMPLY SITTING in a roomful of lawmakers and coming to a decision without addressing these pertinent issues is wrong in a modern age where the fate of many young girls is being left to the mercy of a traditional practice with no medical benefits.

THE DECISION by the Liberian legislature to omit the FGM practices fails to address a lot of issues and relies solely on a selective conclusion decided by a few men, that the practice is simply cultural and therefore should not be regarded as Domestic Violence.

DURING A PUBLIC HEARING on the Domestic Violence law Wednesday, most of the 13 lawmakers in attendance, considered as ambiguous the ‘harassment component’ of the law which include repeated making telephone calls to or inducing another person to make telephone calls, using the internet or other electronic means to make unwanted or malice communication and repeatedly watching or loitering outside or near the building where a person resides, works, carries on business or studies.

THE LAWMAKERS argued that the “emotional, verbal and psychological abuse” is also ambiguous, which means in the law, a pattern or one-time occurrence of degrading or humiliating conduct towards a person including any behavior that causes emotional damage and reduction of self-esteem, or that harms and disturbs full development, or that aims at degrading or controlling a person’s actions.

SADLY, WE LIVE in a nation that believes it is right to perform a procedure on a child not old enough to give her consent.

AS OF 2013, according to a UNICEF report, only 22 countries had passed legislations or decrees against FGM/C practice; Among them, Benin, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Mauritania, Niger and Nigeria.

LIBERIA IS AMONGST six countries which are home to 16 million girls – including Chad, Mali, Sierra Leone, Somalia and Sudan – that still do not even criminalize FGM, according to a major report examining laws in the 28 African countries where the tradition is endemic. Only two countries, Kenya and Uganda, have robust legislation.

TODAY, AN ESTIMATED 200 million women and girls are at risk with experts suggesting that the clinical practice must also reflect their reality.

FREQUENTLY PERFORMED using dirty instruments and no anesthetic, FGM can cause hemorrhaging, infection and shock. Long-term complications carry significant physical and sexual consequences, including incontinence and infertility, and frequently causes psychological trauma.

FORMER PRESIDENT ELLEN Johnson-Sirleaf, waited for her last day in office to sign an executive order abolishing the ancient practice. In the aftermath of her presidency, the issue is still in limbo as lawmakers are now holding public hearing to decide its fate.

ONCE A TABOO topic in Liberia and most parts of Africa, FGM is guarded by  powerful traditional societies which have dominate politics in 10 of Liberia’s 16 tribes. 

THE WOMEN’S SECRET society known as Sande—an ancient organization with its own traditions and religious beliefs, which predates Islam and Christianity—claims that cutting a girl’s genitals is essential for her passage to adulthood. The cutting takes place at the end of a six-month training called a “Bush school,” after which a girl is said to be ready for marriage (this practice generally takes place between ages 13 and 16, but girls as young as 3 have been initiated and cut). So powerful is the Sande’s electoral power that it is widely believed the president herself was initiated (without FGC) in order to win votes in the 2011 election.

IT HAS BECOME THE policy of the Sande and its male counterpart, the Poro, to kill anyone who speaks publicly about their rituals. 

SADLY, IT APPEARS condemning FGM could mean political suicide for Liberia’s leaders which suggest why lawmakers are keen to erase the violence and human rights element of the law for good, to the detriment of a many young girls’ future. 

THIS IS WHY we are prevailing on President Weah to make the right decision when the law reaches his desk. Vetoing the bill will send a clear message that this current government values women and human rights.

SADLY, LIBERIA, AFRICA’S oldest republic appears to be entrapped in the stone age with an archaic law while many of its neighbors are banned the practice.

THIS IS WRONG AND IT remains a sad tragedy for a nation torn by politics and the balls or gravitas to what is right – even to its own detriment.

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