Sierra Leone does not presently have any national law that explicitly prohibits and punishes the practice of FGM. Previous efforts to criminalise it have not materialised.
Women and girls who have not been cut are often frowned upon and prohibited from taking part in certain community functions. The practice is for the most part carried out by traditional cutters (soweis) who yield a lot of power and control over the country’s social and political functions.
In 2014, the government of Sierra Leone placed a countrywide ban on FGM to control the spread of the Ebola Virus Disease. Individuals found guilty of carrying out the procedure were fined and although this led to a drastic reduction in the prevalence of FGM at the time, the ban was not effected long term. The practice of FGM resumed and has since then been going on uninterrupted. Reports of women and girls being kidnapped and forced to undergo the cut are therefore common.
Due to the lack of political goodwill; failure by the State to outrightly condemn FGM; and remarks from various political leaders justifying the practice, this human rights violation continues unabated.
In this regard, Equality Now calls on President Julius Maada Bio, the Ministries of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs; Internal Affairs; Health and Sanitation; and the Sierra Leone Judiciary and law enforcement mechanism to:
- permanently ban FGM by enacting and enforcing a comprehensive anti FGM law.
- Support educational outreach to relevant communities and local chiefs on the harms of FGM.
- Protect women and girls who are uncut, from intimidation and abuse.
We further call upon the First Lady Fatima Bio to take FGM as part of her Hands off Our Girls campaign that seeks to protect girls from various human rights violation such as child marriage and sexual violence that are greatly interlinked with FGM or happen as a result of FGM.
These actions will ensure that Sierra Leone honours its national, regional and international duty to protect the rights of women and girls.
What efforts have previously been made to ban FGM in Sierra Leone?
Although Sierra Leone does not have a national law that explicitly prohibits FGM, the following laws attempt to protect women and girls:
- The Child Rights Act 2007 which criminalises all forms of torture directed to a child;
- The Domestic Violence Act 2007 which seeks to protect women and girls from domestic violence, harm, or other acts which may endanger their safety, health or wellbeing;
- The Offences Against the Person Act 1861 which illegalises bodily harm of another person; and
- The Prevention and Control of HIV and AIDS Act 2007 which criminalises the negligent use of unsafe procedures, leading to the spread of HIV.
Have these laws been used to prosecute the practice of FGM in Sierra Leone?
Considering that none of the laws in Sierra Leone criminalise FGM explicitly, there have not been any documented prosecutions with regards to FGM. In addition, owing to the existing gender inequalities in Sierra Leone, laws that are meant to protect and uphold the rights of women and girls are not implemented as they ought to be.
How prevalent is FGM in Liberia?
Presently, more than half of Liberian women are living with the consequences of this harmful practice and many more are at risk. These women and girls have little choice in this matter, with reports of forced mutilations being common.
FGM is heavily entrenched in Liberian culture, dating back many centuries. Strong taboos surrounding the practice and associated Sande secret societies make tackling the practice challenging. .
Liberia remains one of the three West African countries that do not have a law criminalizing FGM despite having signed and ratified regional and international human rights instruments condemning the practice as a human rights violation, including the Maputo Protocol.
What efforts have been made to ban FGM in Liberia?
On her last day in office in 2018, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf signed an executive order on the Domestic Violence bill to ban FGM on girls under 18 years old. However, the ban expired in February 2019 . Additionally, the punishments included rehabilitation and fines which are determined on a case by case basis -- none of which deterred practising communities. Traditional leaders have significant power and influence over Liberian community and often over policymakers. Once girls reach age 18, they will face immense pressure to undergo FGM in order to remain in the community.
The temporary ban on FGM was not as as effective as initially anticipated during its one year of existence as a law. This was mainly due to lack of knowledge on the existence of the ban and lack of a coordinated multi-sectoral implementation by state agencies. Even with the existence of the Executive Order, the number of Sande bushes in Liberia has increased with the practice now extends to 11 counties from the previous 10.
Other than the temporary ban on FGM, there has never been any solid attempt at making FGM illegal in Liberia. In fact, the few cases that have gone through the justice system have been covered under Section 242 of the Penal Code which speaks to malicious and unlawful injuries towards another person by cutting off or otherwise depriving him or her of any of the members of his body, finding a person guilty of a felony. This is punishable by up to five years in prison.
Ruth Berry Peal’s case:
In July 2011, the members of the politically influential Sande secret society who had kidnapped and forcibly subjected Ruth to FGM were sentenced to three years imprisonment; however, they appealed the judgment and were released on bail. The appeal has been pending at the Supreme Court with no hearing date set and the perpetrators remain free.
Zaye Doe’s case:
In March 2017, 16-year-old Zaye Doe died in Tappita area in the Sande bush during forced mutilation. The traditional leaders (Zoes) subjected Zaye and 25 more girls to FGM despite the government ban on Sande Secret Society operations, including FGM.
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