Liberia: Lawmakers Linked to Facilitating Female Genital Cutting in Gparpolu County
Gbarpolu County – The campaign against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Liberia seems to be leading to a complete fiasco as some lawmakers in the country are said to be heavily facilitating the practices.
Despite Merck Foundation’s campaign against the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), it has been disclosed that two members of the legislature have been identified as those reportedly facilitating the harmful traditional practice in the country.
By Never Garmah Lomo, Contributing Writer
It is alleged that those who make the law (lawmakers) are the ones breaking the very law they made. An example is reports of two Gbarpolu County lawmakers who have been accused of facilitating Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) practices in the county. The two lawmakers are identified as Senator Daniel Flomo Nathan and Representative Joseph Matthew of Gbarpolu County District #3.
Female genital mutilation, also known as female circumcision, excision or genital cutting, comprises all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injuries to the genital organs for non-medical reasons, mostly carried out between infancy and age 15.
The procedure has no health benefits for girls and women. Because it is usually performed without permission and often against will, it violates girls’ right to make important decisions about their sexual and reproductive health.
The lasting psychological effects on victims can be traumatic, often leading to long-term mental health issues and sexual dysfunction. Procedures can cause severe bleeding and problems urinating, and later cysts, infections, infertility as well as complications in childbirth and increased risk of newborn and maternal deaths.
It can be recalled that in February of 2022, the Government of Liberia and Traditional Leaders placed a three years ban on FGM practices in Liberia but it appears that the practice of FGM is still ongoing in most parts of rural the country due to the refusal of traditional leaders to enforce the ban.
While some lawmakers, human rights and Civil Society Advocates are vigorously advocating for the passage of a Bill against FGM, the two lawmakers are allegedly undermining the Bill by their alleged actions of facilitating the harmful traditional practice.
An investigation conducted by this news outlet revealed that low enrollment in schools in the county has been attributed to the traditional practices which is allegedly been hugely sponsored by the two lawmakers through the traditional Bushes-the Sande and Poro Societies.
The investigation further revealed that the two lawmakers are in the constant habit of assisting parents of young girls and boys with funding to purchase lappas and other items to be worn by the prospective graduates from the Sande and Poro Societies at the end of the initiation.
Observers wonder as to what the Internal Affairs Ministry is doing despite the three years ban placed on FGM practices by the Government of Liberia.
But reacting to the recent news of the ongoing Sande Society activities in Gbapolu County, the Assistant Minister for Cultural and Customs at the Internal Affairs Ministry Joseph B. Jangar said most of the Sande society or groove operations in the counties are being operated illegally and those involved are to be arrested and punished culturally.
Assistant Minister Jangar disclosed that he is not aware about any groove being operated in Gbapolu County despite several media reports.
“We have instructed our superintendents and other local authorities in the counties to prosecute anyone involved with illegal FGM practices without certificate should be subjected to cultural punishments.
He added that the problem is not with the Ministry of Internal Affairs but lawmakers in the various counties and some counties authorities who are involved it for political reasons.
What did Human Rights Advocate Says?
Human Rights Activist and Lawyer, Cllr. Urias Pour quoting Article 2 of the Maputo Protocol African Chapter on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women states that among other things, “Parties shall combat all forms of discrimination against women through appropriate legislative, institutional and other measures. In this regard they shall: a) include in their national constitutions and other legislative instruments, if not already done, the principle of equality between women and men and ensure its effective application.”
It continues that (b) enact and effectively implement appropriate legislative or regulatory measures, including those prohibiting and curbing all forms of discrimination particularly those harmful practices which endanger the health and general well-being of women;
c) Integrate a gender perspective in their policy decisions, legislation, development plans, programs and activities and in all other spheres of life.”
(d) Take corrective and positive action in those areas where discrimination against women in law and in fact continues to exist;
e) Support the local, national, regional and continental initiatives directed at eradicating all forms of discrimination against women.
2. States Parties shall commit themselves to modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of women and men through public education, information, education and communication strategies, with a view to achieving the elimination of harmful cultural and traditional practices and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes, or on stereotyped roles for women and men.
Article 3 Right to Dignity also states that, “Every woman shall have the right to dignity inherent in a human being and to the recognition and protection of her human and legal rights; every woman shall have the right to respect as a person and to the free development of her personality.
The document also adds that, “States Parties shall adopt and implement appropriate measures to prohibit any exploitation or degradation of women.
4. States Parties shall adopt and implement appropriate measures to ensure the protection of every woman’s right to respect for her dignity and protection of women from all forms of violence, particularly sexual and verbal violence.”
Cllr. Pour maintained that the reason why FGM practices are still ongoing in various counties is due to the lack of political will by lawmakers as well as the strong cultural practices in Liberia.
The human rights lawyers explained that another reason why lawmakers have failed to implement the three years ban placed on FGM practices is because if they do so, they will be losing votes from constituencies.
He wants government to provide livelihood program for traditional people which will keep them busy to avoid the practices of FGM.
Cllr. Pour recommended that the government should empower Civil Society Organizations to raise awareness on danger of the FGM practices in the country and the medical effects and sexual reproductive health rights it have on women and girls since it has absolutely no medical benefits.
He added that the Liberian Government should create alternative programs to transform the Sande bushes or groove for the benefits of the citizens.
What the FGM Bill seeks to address?
On the continuous practices of FGM in Liberia and how to curtail same, Liberia’s Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, Fonati Kofa said the Bill seeks to address those harmful traditional practices against girls and women and if passed, violation will go with penalties for violators.
Representative Kofa maintained that FGM is a harmful traditional practice adding, “I’m opposing to it and hope that the Bill can come out of Committee Room when we returned. But a lot of civic education and work with traditional people will also be required.”
“I have always opposed FGM practices when we did the Domestic Violence Bill, sometimes in 2019; it almost got torpedoed because it had an FGM ban. We removed the FGM ban to get the Domestic Violence Bill passed. I promised our women and girls that I would revisit the issue so that it stands alone as a Bill before the end of the 54th Session. Also we had allotted sufficient time for consultations with traditional leaders amidst an Executive Order banning the practice. The time has come for us to make real our promises,” Rep. Kofa said.
He furthered, “I read the scientific data on the consequences of the practice which have no medical value from the United Nations and other advocates. I also talked with some women who had undergone the procedure. Some with long-lasting medical and psychological effects.”
Witnesses testified in Gbarpolu County
With the situation in Gbapolu County, witnesses and some parents who have their children in the Poro and Sande Bushes in the county, disclosed that they have benefited from both Senator Nathan and Representative Matthew’s donations of clothes including lappas and other items for their children graduations from the bush society or traditional school.
Two other parents, Aaron Momo and Momo Denis admitted that their children were assisted with lappa (clothing) from Senator Daniel Nathan. Also the Kongbah District Commissioner Alfred O. Bai admitted that the two government officials have been contributing to Sandee and Poro Societies activities during initiation and graduation ceremonies.
Commissioner Bai said Senator Nathan and Representative Matthew have been doing well when it comes to their contributions toward the Sande and Poro activities including the initiation of the bush.
“Yes, Senator Nathan bought lappa in bulk and gave them to the women on the football field for the purpose of removing those women and girls who were in the Sande bush which I witnessed but I didn’t witness how it was distributed among the bushes. I usually attend those donations ceremonies by the two lawmakers who have been playing major roles toward the Sande bushes,” Commissioner Bai added.
He also added that Senator Nathan’s last contribution to the initiation and graduation of girls from the Sande Society was done between October and November of last year.
For his part, one of the accused lawmakers, Representative Joseph Matthew though refused to be recorded declined to speak on issues surrendering what he calls his culture because according to him, he is also a cultural man and was born in it. He made these remarks during a visit at his office on Monday October 3, 2022.
“Culture are meant to be obeyed and this is where I can stop he concluded.” Representative Matthew also restricted our reporter not to publish any conversation they had thus making the reporter’s work difficult.
Another accused, Gbapolu County Senator, Daniel Nathan admitted that sometimes last year between October to November 2021, he purchased a lappa, food items and none food items for Sande bush girls in Gbarma District that had groove (Sande Bush). He said this was to assist some parents who needed help from him.
In a telephone conversation, Senator Nathan said, one of the Zoes who is very closed to him, was operating the grove in Gbarma District but she has gone to Kongbah District to continue her groove with the hope that he (Senator) will continue his support toward them.
According to him, the position he was in when he contributed toward the purchasing of lappas and other items including food and none food items, he is no longer in said position to facilitate any grove activities.
“I’m a traditional person and a member of all the traditional practices in the county,” the Gbapolu County Senator boasted.
“I found myself in the Senate today because I’m subject to those traditional beliefs and if I stand in the Chambers of the Senate and advocate for the abolition through legislation, I know the consequences I will face if I go back home and so I am not one of the advocates in the Senate to abolish the FGM practices because I’m a member and am also liable to discipline which I can’t ignore.”
Senator Nathan maintained, “I sorely believe in it, it has been in existence since the creation which we met with our forefathers and is still ongoing.” He added, “Those of us from traditional communities were compared to join and we are members and can’t join others to divert it.”
On the ongoing advocacies against FGM by Merck Foundation’s and others CSOs, Senator Nathan said, “Well, we can’t say those who are advocating about the abolition of FGM are wasting their time but rather it is a lawmaking process which is based on majority votes. “Those of us who are members cannot stop the Bill from being passed and the rest of our colleagues who are not members are also subject Plenary decision if the Bill is not passed.”
The lawmaker added, “All those groove that are still opened while academic school activities are ongoing, I’m advising the traditional people to put the girls out so that they can have the opportunity to go back to school. I have communicated to the leaders of the groove or Sande Bush but he they told me that they are waiting for dry season because they can’t graduate those girls under the rain.
Senator Nathan indicated that there was an appeal for the groove or Sande Bush not to be abolished but rather create free space on the activities of FGM practices for three years but the government has failed to educate or empower traditional leaders which is one of the reasons why the FGM practices is rampant in Gbapolu and other counties.
With all these rigmarole over the continuous support to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) especially involving high ranking government officials in Liberia, many are concerned abolition of FGM a harmful traditional practice which has affected millions of African girls.
At least 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone a form of female genital mutilation (FGM). An additional 2 million girls could undergo FGM by 2030 as a result of COVID-19, on top of the 68 million cases which had previously been anticipated.
In July 2020, the Human Rights Council adopted resolution 44/16 on the elimination of female genital mutilation to speed up efforts to reach zero tolerance for FGM by 2030 and to restate the global ban on the harmful practice as it constitutes a serious violation of women’s rights.
The number of women and girls mutilated every year globally could rise to 4.6 million by 2030 if the goal of zero tolerance isn’t reached, said Natalia Kanem, Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
Edited October 6, 2022