Liberia: Ensure justice in the case of Ruth Berry Peal who was forcibly subjected to FGM

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Date: 
24 Mar 2011
Update Date: 
8 Jul 2011
Update: 

Following a month of deliberation, a guilty verdict was announced on July 8, 2011 by the jury in Ruth Berry Peal’s case on charges of kidnapping, felonious restraint and theft.  The sentencing of the two women will take place this week by the judge, who in closing made references to the Liberian Constitution and Article 4(1) of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (African Women’s Protocol), which states: “Every woman shall be entitled to respect for her life and the integrity and security of her person. All forms of exploitation, cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment and treatment shall be prohibited.”

Equality Now and its Liberian partners, the Women of Liberia Peace Network (WOLPNET) and Women NGOs Secretariat of Liberia (WONGOSOL), welcome the jury’s decision and are eagerly awaiting the sentencing of the perpetrators.  We are also continuing to urge the government of Liberia to take expeditious action to protect girls and women from female genital mutilation, and, to this end, calling on the Liberian government to stop issuing permits to the FGM practitioners, to initiate the process towards enactment of a law criminalizing FGM and to invest in public education against the practice.

We are grateful to you for your steadfast advocacy for the rights of women and girls. Together we can make a difference, and a better world. Please continue to write to the Liberian government to enact a law against FGM and to stop issuing permits to FGM practitioners.  We will keep you informed of future developments.

Ruth Berry Peal
Ruth Berry Peal

Over 58 percent of Liberian women have undergone female genital mutilation (FGM). The practice is carried out through a politically influential female secret society known as the Sande society as part of an initiation rite into womanhood by the Kpelle, Bassa, Vai, Dan (Gio), Mano, Dei and Gola ethnic groups. Challenging practices of the influential Sande society could have severe repercussions. Women from non-FGM practicing communities in Liberia may also be subjected to FGM either through marriage into practicing groups or by force as was the case with Ruth Berry Peal.

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In January 2010, Ruth had an argument with two women from the Gola ethnic group and 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 following day, Ruth was forcibly taken from her home to the ‘bush’ where she was genitally mutilated in an initiation ritual, was forced to take an oath of secrecy and was 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. However, because Ruth has invoked the wrath of the Gola community by exposing their practice after taking an oath of secrecy, she and her husband received several threats demanding they drop the case. Ruth’s case has been moved to Monrovia, where she currently resides apart from her husband and children due to threats against her. She has been receiving support from the Women NGOs Secretariat of Liberia (WONGOSOL), Women of Liberia Peace Network (WOLPNET) and the Association of Female Lawyers of Liberia (AFELL).

FGM in Liberia is generally carried out on girls between the ages of 8 to 18 years but in some cases girls as young as 3 years are subjected to the practice. The forms of FGM practiced in Liberia are Type II – where the clitoris and labia minora (smaller lips) are removed leaving the labia majora (larger lips) intact; and Type I or clitoridectomy – the partial or total removal of the clitoris. Many girls are subjected to FGM at traditional schools for the Sande society where they are prepared for adulthood by undergoing training, including on the arts of using herbs, spices, and roots to make poisons, “love” potions. FGM is a key element of this indoctrination, following which the girls are considered members of the women's secret society, meaning that they are "clean" and eligible for marriage, capable of child-bearing, and eventually able to hold important societal roles and offices. The Liberian Ministry of Internal Affairs issues permits to the women who run these schools and who carry out FGM on the girls in attendance.

FGM poses serious physical and mental health risks for women and girls. The immediate complications include severe pain, haemorrhage and shock, wound infection, septicemia and tetanus. Long term health consequences include keloids and cysts formation, possible chronic infections, decreased sexual enjoyment and psychological trauma. A 2006 World Health Organization multi-country study found that complications during delivery are more likely to occur among women who have undergone FGM and the rate of prenatal deaths is 1-2 percent higher for the babies of such women. Some girls die from FGM, usually as a result of bleeding or infection.

The Liberian constitution guarantees the rights of life, liberty and security of person to all Liberians. Liberia is also a party to a number of international and regional human rights treaties that mandate the protection of women and girls from the practice of FGM, including the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, which in Article 5 specifically calls on states parties to ban all forms of FGM through legislative measures. In addition, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, all ratified by Liberia, further guarantee women and girls protection from this harmful practice.

Significantly, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, the treaty body that monitors compliance with CEDAW, in examining Liberia’s report in 2009, urged the State party to “enact without delay . . . legislation prohibiting female genital mutilation and to ensure that offenders are prosecuted and punished in accordance with the severity of this violation” and to “immediately stop issuing permits to practitioners as currently being done by the Ministry of Internal Affairs.” The Committee encouraged Liberia to “extend and accelerate implementation of programmes designed to sensitize and provide alternate sources of income for those who perform female genital mutilation” and to “strengthen its awareness-raising and educational efforts, targeted at both women and men, including government officials at all levels, chiefs and other traditional and community leaders, . . to eliminate the practice of female genital mutilation and its underlying cultural justification.”

Despite the foregoing international, regional and national commitments, Liberia does not have a law banning FGM. Women in practicing communities have little choice but to adhere to tradition if they are to be considered full members of the community. Women from non-practicing communities such as Ruth Berry Peal may also be forced to undergo this practice. Rather than honor its international obligations to ban the practice, the Liberian government condones and supports this practice, thereby undermining efforts towards the elimination of FGM.

What You Can Do: 

Please write to the Liberian authorities noted below urging them to honor Liberia’s international and regional human rights commitments by enacting and enforcing comprehensive legislation against FGM as well as supporting educational outreach to relevant communities and local chiefs on the harms of FGM. Furthermore, urge the Minister of Internal Affairs to immediately cease the practice of issuing permits to schools where FGM is conducted. Also ask them to ensure that Ruth Peal obtains justice and remedy for the abuse she suffered. Because Ruth is threatened by members of the secret society and traditional heads who support the secret society, please request that the government provide her with immediate protection.

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Letters should go to:

H.E. Madam Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf
P.O. Box 9001
Capitol Hill, Monrovia
Republic of Liberia
Tel:             +231 644 4696     
Email: info@emansion.gov.lr

Dr. Christiana Tah
Minister of Justice
P.O. Box 0123
Ashmun Street
Monrovia, Republic of Liberia
Tel:            + 231 669 7205     
Email: info@moj.gov.lr
ctah@aol.com

H.E. Vabah K. Gayflor
Minister for Gender and Development
P.O. Box 10-1375
110 UN Drive & Gurley Street
1000 Monrovia 10
Republic of Liberia
Tel:             +231 651 6434     
Email: veegayflor@yahoo.com

H.E. Harrison Kahnweah
Minister of Internal Affairs
Executive Mansion Ground
Monrovia
Republic of Liberia
Tel:             +231 651 3358     
Email: hkarnwea@yahoo.com
http://www.mia.gov.lr

Letters: 

Dear [Your Excellency/Minister]:

I am writing to express my deep concern over the high incidence of female genital mutilation (FGM) in Liberia. It is estimated that Over 58 percent of Liberian women have undergone the practice of FGM, which is carried out through a politically influential female secret society known as the Sande society, as part of an initiation rite into womanhood. Many girls are subjected to FGM at traditional schools for the Sande society.  I am concerned to learn that Liberian Ministry of Internal Affairs issues permits to women who run these schools and carry out FGM on the girls in attendance.  

Women from non-FGM practicing communities may also be subjected to FGM in Liberia either through marriage into practicing groups or by force as was the case with Ruth Berry Peal, who was subjected to this practice in 2010 due to an order issued by a Gola chief presiding over her dispute with two women from an FGM practicing community.  Ruth was abducted from her home by the women and was taken to the ‘bush’ where she was forcefully genitally mutilated. She has filed a suit against the two women who mutilated her   and, as a result, has been receiving threats from the community to drop the case.

Despite the Liberian constitution which guarantees the rights of life, liberty and security of person to all Liberians and your ratification of various international and regional human rights treaties that mandate the protection of women and girls from the practice of FGM, (including the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Women’s Protocol), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and of the Convention on the Rights of the Child), the Liberian government has failed to provide protection to the women and girls from being subjected to FGM.

Significantly, I note that the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, the treaty body that monitors compliance with CEDAW, in examining your country’s report in 2009, urged you to “enact without delay . . . legislation prohibiting female genital mutilation and to ensure that offenders are prosecuted and punished in accordance with the severity of this violation” and to “immediately stop issuing permits to practitioners as currently being done by the Ministry of Internal Affairs.” It encouraged Liberia to “extend and accelerate implementation of programmes designed to sensitize and provide alternate sources of income for those who perform female genital mutilation” and to “strengthen its awareness-raising and educational efforts, targeted at both women and men, including government officials at all levels, chiefs and other traditional and community leaders, . . to eliminate the practice of female genital mutilation and its underlying cultural justification.”

I urge you to take immediate action, as is your obligation under Article 5 of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa and under other international human rights treaties, and enact and enforce a law prohibiting FGM; to immediately cease the practice of issuing permits to FGM practitioners; and to institute other protective mechanisms that will guarantee protection to all women and girls in Liberia from undergoing FGM. I also respectfully request that you do all in your power to ensure that Ruth Berry Peal receives justice and protection. 

I thank you for your attention.

Sincerely,