8 June 2012

Liberian government forced to take a stand on FGM

Blog by our In-Country Researcher.

FGM is a topical issue in Liberia at the moment.  The government was recently forced to take a public position on the matter, with Liberian officials declaring they want to stop FGM.  This followed the publication by a journalist of an article exposing FGM which made her the target of threats, sparking international controversy.  

 More recently, on the 20 May 2012, a senior government official, the superintendent of Montserrado County, Grace Kpaan, addressed members of the UN Security Council delegation, co-headed by US Ambassador Susan Rice, telling them that the practice of Female Genital Cutting is evil.  The expose happened during a visit to the Kortu Town United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL)’s Quick Impact project for FGM practitioners who have abandoned the practice in exchange for new livelihoods.  Over 30 women attend workshops where they learn weaving, tie-dying, soap making and tailoring. 

News of these welcome developments comes shortly after one of our researchers returned from a trip to Liberia and neighbouring Sierra Leone.  She met human rights activists and lawyers to find out more about FGM.  The practice is prevalent within certain communities.  Estimates suggest that 58% of women in Liberia have undergone FGM, while in Sierra Leone this figure rises to 91%. Unfortunately accurate data is hard to come by as FGM is carried out as part of initiation to the all-female secret Sande societies (called Bondo societies in Sierra Leone)Woman can come under intense social pressure to undergo FGM and face social exclusion if they resist.

In Liberia, we heard about a recent court case involving FGM.  In January 2010, Ruth Berry Peal had an argument with two women from the Gola community was summoned by the Gola Chief who ruled that she be genitally mutilated despite her belonging to an ethnic group that does not practice FGM.  The next day, Ruth was kidnapped from her home and taken to the “bush” where she was forcibly genitally mutilated.  She was made to take an oath of secrecy and threatened with death if she broke the oath.  She was kept in the “bush” for one month and developed health complications, which required three months of treatment following her release.  Ruth filed a lawsuit against the two women who forcibly mutilated her.  The case was transferred from Bomi County to Monrovia after she received death threats.  The defendants were found guilty by a unanimous verdict of the jury and sentenced to 3 years’ imprisonment.  They are currently appealing to the Supreme Court and we await the outcome of the appeal with interest. 

We met Phyllis Nguma-Kimba, a human rights activist and president of the National Association on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children (NATPAH)/Inter African Committee (IAC).  This brave woman has also received death threats, had her house burned down and her office burgled by people opposed to her stance.   Despite this, she is resolutely determined to continue her work, providing training and education to vulnerable women and girls.   

Sierra Leone has been described as “ground zero” in the fight to eradicate FGM because it takes place with secret societies making eradication so difficult.  Added to this, there has so far not been the political will to combat FGM – in fact, FGM has been used to gain votes in elections, with politicians sponsoring the cutting of girls to gain popularity.  In Freetown, we met another inspirational activist, Laurel Bangura, of the IAC.  The IAC in Sierra Leone tackles the issue of FGM from all angles, from lobbying parliamentarians, to working with the police, city councils, Paramount chiefs and religious leaders to holding workshops for women and girls at risk of FGM.  They have been campaigning for the Child Rights Act to be revisited to outlaw FGM until a woman is 18.  When the bill was passed in 2007 the “FGM clause” was removed from the final version of the bill during parliamentary debate, with one senior MP telling reporters that there was “general consensus” in parliament not to outlaw FGM.