….Stakeholders condemn FGM in totality
By Lubem Gena
Over 130 women’s rights organizations across 34 countries have called on the Government of Sierra Leone to criminalize Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) saying, it is one of the basic steps needed to protect women and girls.
An open letter to that effect was coordinated by the Forum Against Harmful Practices (FAHP), which is a coalition of 21 civil society organizations which are working towards ending FGM and other harmful practices in Sierra Leone, and Equality Now, an international women’s rights organization that focuses on using the law to promote and protect women and girls’ rights around the world.
Tara Carey, the Head of Media at Equality Now, said in a press statemet made available to our correspondent:
“Following yet another tragic death in Sierra Leone due to FGM, we arranged for 130 women’s rights organisations from 34 countries around the world – including Nigeria – to co-sign an open letter calling on the Government of Sierra Leone to criminalize FGM and protect women and girls from this harmful practice.”
She added that signatories were further stimulated to sign the letter following the death on December 20th 2021 of 21-year-old Maseray Sei, who died from acute bleeding and shock a day after being subjected to FGM. A few days following Maseray’s death, in a different region, a 15-year-old girl was admitted to hospital for urgent treatment after suffering serious complications due to FGM.
Following Maseray’s death, FAHP wrote to the Government of Sierra Leone and H.E. President Julius Maada Bio but received no reply.
Tara Carey explained, “This is the third time in recent years that someone is reported to have died from FGM in Sierra Leone. In each case, local NGOs have sent a joint letter but the government has failed to reply. The hope was that by sending an open letter signed by NGOs both inside and outside Sierra Leone – ideally representing as many countries and regions as possible – it would prompt the government to act.”
Sierra Leone has one of the highest FGM prevalence rates in Africa, with 83% of women and girls aged between 15 and 49 years having undergone the procedure. Despite this, the country’s penal code does not specifically prohibit FGM, and there have been no known prosecutions relating to FGM.
The open letter states:
“Despite the harm caused by FGM, the Government of Sierra Leone has failed to criminalize this harmful practice. The country’s penal code does not specifically prohibit FGM, and there have been no known prosecutions relating to FGM. Furthermore, gender discrimination in Sierra Leone means that existing laws that are meant to uphold the rights of women and girls are not being effectively implemented to protect against FGM or punish perpetrators.
“The failure to criminalize FGM has been further aggravated by a widespread lack of political will to end this harmful practice and the failure by the State to explicitly condemn FGM.
“Of particular concern is how various politicians seeking election have made political pronouncements in support of FGM, with some even offering to pay for women and girls to be cut.”
On February 3rd 2022 in Sierra Leone, representatives FAHP, led by chairperson Rugiatu Turay, delivered the letter to the Speaker of Parliament, Hon. Dr. Abass Chernor Bundu, in his Chambers at Parliament Building in Freetown.
In response, the Parliamentary and Public Relations Department released a ground-breaking public statement about Hon. Dr. Bundu’s comments. It said:
“He made it categorically clear that he was not against the Bondo Society, but shared their concern that FGM be outlawed in the country, whilst acknowledging that it might sound unpalatable to a certain section of society for traditional reasons. He also said that he knew it was hard to change tradition, but as a great believer in change, good traditions needed to be preserved while discarding bad ones. This is an incident of evolution in every society.
“He further stated that no society could afford to remain backward and primitive forever, and that it was natural for countries to go through an evolutionary process and Sierra Leone was no exception.
“He added that the time has come for the country to evaluate its cultural practices and decide as a people what is good to be preserved and what is not good to be discarded.
“He further added that this should be done not by force, but by persuasion and affirmed that there is already a Standing Committee on FGM in Parliament.”
Furthermore, Hon. Dr. Bundu said he would present the letter to Sierra Leone’s Head of State, President Julius Maada Bio, along with other leaders of political parties in Parliament.
Meanwhile, our correspondent gathered that a cross section of stakeholders who spoke about the development have joined voices to condemn the act in its entirety.
To Rugiatu Turay, a trailblazing anti-FGM campaigner and founder of The Amazonian Initiative Movement, expressed her happiness: “I feel so fulfilled after listening to Rt. Hon Dr. Abass Bundu sharing how he resisted his mother-in-law and protected his three daughters from undergone FGM. With sincerity he said, we cannot continue to shy away from the fact that FGM is dangerous.
“My message to politicians and other stakeholders has always been to be truthful, sincere and brave to speak to your constituents and communities on the need to uphold culture but protect the health of women and girls.”
Alimatu Dimonekene, another leading end FGM campaigner, founder of A Girl At A Time Sierra Leone and co-founder of the Not In My Name Sierra Leone Coalition, stated: ”This a huge move and quite a powerful one that the Government of Sierra Leone has taken.
Meeting activists as well as survivors of this appalling practice shows the government is prepared to listen and make an effort to exert change towards the elimination of their harmful practice once and for all.
“I now hope the Government will take the necessary steps to enact laws to ban FGM and implement policies that will ensure women and girls will be safeguarded, protected and educated about the risks associated with the most dehumanising practice on the bodies of women and girls of Sierra Leone.”
And Equality Now’s Global Lead on Ending Harmful Practices, Asenath Mwithigah, stated:
“As Equality Now, we welcome the remarks by the Sierra Leone Speaker of Parliament, Hon. Dr Abas on the need to outlaw FGM in the country. A law banning FGM in Sierra Leone would ensure that millions of women and girls are protected by this grave human rights violation, and will provide access to justice for the families of victims and survivors.
“As Equality Now, we are ready and willing to support the Government of Sierra Leone towards the development of this law prohibiting FGM at all ages. We know that for social change to be realized, we must begin with legal change through using the power of the law to create enduring equality for women and girls globally. We will reach out to the government of Sierra Leone in the hope to further these discussions and move this agenda forward with an aim of having a law prohibiting FGM in place.
“Lastly, with great gratitude, we immensely appreciate all the women’s rights organizations which signed the open letter. This is a true illustration of how collective action can be galvanized towards a common goal – ending FGM.”