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Dear President Bio, Please Ban Female Genital Mutilation in Sierra Leone

This letter was originally published in The Nation on June 1, 2022.

Dear President Bio

We, women’s rights actors living and working in Kenya are pleased to welcome you to Kenya on this Madaraka day. This is not only for the reason that in 2020 Sierra Leone lifted the education ban ensuring all students, regardless of their status, can access school including pregnant girls, but also for the fact that Sierra Leone has both signed and ratified the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol). In this regard, we feel that Sierra Leone and Kenya share a kindred bond, in committing to comprehensive legal frameworks that serve to both prevent the violation of women’s rights and also to respond, in the event that violations occur.

However, Mr. President, we wish to offer that there is yet one more step that Sierra Leone can take to protect the rights of women and girls and be fully compliant with its pan African as well as global legal obligations. Sierra Leone needs a total ban on female genital mutilation (FGM). 

You see Mr. President, both the World Health Organization as well as the Centre for Disease Control have found that this harmful practice has completely no health benefits. On the contrary, it is known to be detrimental to the well-being of girls and women in innumerable ways. Firstly, it is extremely painful and traumatic. Secondly, the unnecessary removal of or damage to healthy, normal genital tissue interferes with the natural functioning of the body and causes several immediate and long-term health consequences including fistula and even death. Thirdly, babies born to women who have undergone female genital mutilation suffer a higher rate of neonatal death compared with babies born to women who have not undergone the procedure. 

In fact, the United Nations Committee Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in its General Comment number 2 of 2008 found that FGM amounts to torture. Torture – including FGM, as agreed by all nations across the world is a human rights violation and illegal. Sierra Leone’s most recent Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) reports that nearly 90% of women and girls in the country have been subjected to FGM. This year there have also been reports of deaths as a result of FGM-related complications.

Mr. President whereas communities that practice FGM put up many reasons for its practice including religion and culture, a human rights perspective informs us that the practice has deep roots in inequality between the sexes, and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women. The practice violates the rights to health, security, and physical integrity of the person, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, and the right to life when the procedure results in death. It is only allowed to go on unfettered where communities fail to recognize women as human beings deserving of their rights including the right to life.

Mr. President, Sierra Leone has already taken the first powerful step of ratifying the Maputo Protocol whose Article 5 provides that FGM is illegal. We now implore you to take the second and most definitive step of legislating an Anti-FGM law in Sierra Leone. 

Kenya has the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act and the Kenyan President has committed that ending FGM will be his legacy this year. Kenya’s efforts have borne fruit with UNFPA recording prevalence rates at 21% down from 37.6% in the previous years. The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action in 1995 identified ending FGM as essential to realizing girls’ rights including the right to education which we know to be dear to the Sierra Leonean government and people. We hope that as you return back to Sierra Leone you will take these successes for women and girls and make them a common point of action and commitment between these two great nations.