ABIDJAN [a]— As one of her final acts as Liberian president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf signed an executive order banning the practice of female genital mutilation on girls under the age of 18. While a step in the right direction, women’s rights advocates told Devex that the looseness of the legislation may prove difficult to implement for a new administration.
On Jan. 19, just three days before the swearing in of President George Weah, Sirleaf introduced an order to protect women against domestic violence including physical, sexual, and economic abuses. The measure, valid for one year, outlined specific offenses such as deliberately preventing a person from business activities, stalking, dowry-related violence or emotional abuse. The act also bans female genital mutilation on girls under the age of 18, or women over 18 without their consent.
The legislation is the first to include a clause specifically addressing FGM, a common practice in Liberia often conducted in secrecy. Researchers estimate 58 to 66 percent of women have undergone FGM in Liberia. Experts argue that because of its prevalence, the legislation must be tightened in order to be upheld.
“This is a positive step, but when you look at how the practice is done and how the communities really uphold their culture, and respect their culture, then you realize that this alone will not protect women from FGM,” said Grace Uwizeye, a consultant for the End Harmful Practices division at Equality Now, a gender-equality focused NGO.
In Liberia, FGM is a highly cultural practice often performed in remote locations by traditional leaders who wield great influence over communities, and even policymakers. She said women who don’t participate can suffer social stigma in their communities.
“We realize that the provision protects girls under 18, then once they are over that age they are always under pressure to undergo FGM,” Uwizeye explained. “They will be forced because of how communities hold onto their culture; they will be pressured to the point where they willingly undergo the practice, so that they can remain in the community and take part in the celebrations within the community.”
Mackins Pajibo of Liberian Women Solidarity Incorporated said effective enforcement of the ban will likely prove difficult for the newly elected administration.
Many development experts argue that job creation and education reforms are essential in order for Liberia to advance towards industrialization. But the relative lack of experience of soccer star turned president-elect George Weah means many observers are uncertain of the country’s future trajectory after its first ever democratic transfer of power.
“We have an elected government that has just come into being and now we expect them to fully implement this executive order?” she said. “It will be a challenge because the government is new and cannot go to traditional communities at this crucial time and start imposing laws that goes against the culture.”
However, Pajibo sees this legislation as a useful tool to advance awareness and prevention efforts against FGM.
“I believe that there will be some slack in the execution of this executive order, but we as an institution [we] will take the executive order to our traditional leaders and show them that we have a law in place and talk to them about monitoring and get in touch with them about its harmful after effects,” she continued.
Although declared as a violation against human rights by the United Nations, an estimated 3 million girls are at risk for FGM annually. Today, more than 200 million girls and women alive have been cut across 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, where FGM is concentrated.
FGM causes short- and long-term health and psychological complications ranging from excessive bleeding to incontinence, chronic reproductive tract infections, and post traumatic stress disorder. Its prevalence varies from country to country and from one community to another, depending on local beliefs. In some countries, including Somalia and Guinea, its prevalence is upwards of 90 to 98 percent, Uwizeye explained.
Some places like Somalia or Mali, for example, practice FGM on babies. Liberia, Gambia, and Sierra Leone, cut girls who are between the ages of nine and 18. These communities see FGM as a rights of passage: Once a girl is cut she becomes a woman. The practice varies, therefore the prevalence also varies, Uwizeye told Devex.
Just last year, the Domestic Violence Act passed as law denouncing domestic violence against men and children, but without the female genital mutilation component, which according to Sirleaf, undermined the very essence of the law.
However, the provisions for punishments for those who break the law include rehabilitation and fines, and will be determined on a case-by-case basis which Uwizeye said, “doesn’t send any strong message to the practicing communities.” She said the purpose of the bill should be to deter perpetrators from performing FGM.
“When you look at this bill, another challenge is that the bill itself is not strong enough in terms of punishment and punishing the perpetrators, so we fear that the girls and women are not really protected from the practice,” Uwizeye told Devex. “If a person is convicted of performing FGM, then the penalties for the perpetrator is up to the judge whether the person will undergo counseling, be fined or be sent to prison.”
Uwizeye and Pajibo both expect this bill to create discussions among incoming policymakers. The bill is effective for one year, and women’s rights advocates hope this during this period increased awareness campaigns will spur a larger conversation to pass a national law banning the practice.
“We see [the executive order] as a plus, but we cannot feel that girls have been protected now because the law needs to be tightened,” Pajibo argued.