When Nobel peace prize laureate Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was elected Africa’s first female head of state in 2005, expectations were high.
Throughout both her terms as President, she has talked about her firm commitment to women’s rights, coming out strongly in favour of the health and safety of women and girls.
Last year, at an international event on gender equality, President Johnson-Sirleaf said: “Too many of our countries have yet to muster the courage to ban the irreparable harm inflicted by genital mutilation on young girls in traditional societies.” It was a controversial statement, as Liberia is one of the states yet to do so – half of Liberian women and girls (pdf) are estimated to have undergone this extreme form of violence.
Following bans last year in Nigeria and The Gambia, Liberia is now one of only three countries in West Africa yet to ban FGM – the others are Mali and Sierra Leone.
In Sierra Leone and Liberia, the Sande female secret society promotes and carries out FGM as part of a rite initiating girls into womanhood. FGM is a taboo subject and it is forbidden to talk about secret societies and their practices with non-initiated people.
Punishment for such violations include physical abuse, forceful initiation and death threats – something Ruth Berry Peal, a woman in northern Liberia who was forced to undergo FGM, and other women have faced for years after standing up against it.
Liberia’s media has been silenced on the issue too – and the lives of journalists who speak out are put at risk. Mae Azango was forced into hiding in 2012 for writing about the issue in Front Page Africa.
Things appeared to be changing last year when, in response to many years of international and national pressure, a domestic violence bill was finally introduced to strengthen legislation on violence against women and girls – including, for the first time, a ban on FGM.
The proposed measures on the latter were, though, extremely weak. The bill regarded FGM as an offence only when performed on a girl under the age of 18 – or a person 18 or older without their consent. This would provide a loophole for parents or guardians to grant consent on behalf of their daughters, leaving those most at risk unprotected. The bill also included ineffective penalties for perpetrators, where counselling and fines could be arbitrarily determined by a judge.
Equality Now and its local partner, the Women of Liberia Peace Network, with funding from Comic Relief, have been working to ensure that a total ban on FGM is included in the bill instead – as required by the Maputo protocol, the African women’s rights legal framework, which Liberia has ratified.
This week, things seem to have taken a turn for the worse as legislators decided to delete the FGM provision entirely. A debate will now be held on Thursday on the bill in its current state. As this provision was the most controversial measure, the domestic violence bill could pass without any mention of FGM.
At a time when the Africa-led momentum to end FGM is growing, it is vital that we do not lose the opportunity to protect more girls and women from this huge violation of their rights. Unlike neighbouring countries such as Guinea and Sierra Leone, Liberia has already managed to significantly reduce (pdf) FGM prevalence from 85% for middle-aged women to 44% for girls aged 15 to 19.
However, unless tough legislation is enacted and properly implemented, it may be difficult to accelerate this change and the lives and wellbeing of millions more girls will be put at risk.
Johnson-Sirleaf is well positioned to “muster the courage” to do what is necessary to ensure that Liberia bans FGM – either as part of the current domestic violence bill, or as a standalone bill, as a matter of urgency.
There has been too much discussion and not enough action. Liberia cannot afford to keep making statements to make it seem like it is doing something, without following through and putting real measures in place, which promote and protect the rights of its girls.