Call for a nationwide ban on female genital mutilation in Liberia

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Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a form of violence against women that must be stopped. According to Liberia’s demographic health survey, FGM is estimated at 49.8% for women and girls aged 15-49. Initiation into a secret society called Sande is synonymous with FGM and Sande members have shown stronger support for its continuation than had been shown before.

The United Nations General Assembly adopted the resolution ‘intensifying global efforts for the elimination of FGM on December 20, 2012. This marked a ground-breaking milestone in global efforts to end this harmful practice. The political interest is there. Affected women and girls have gained momentum. The global community now sees this as a human rights violation and a manifestation of gender inequality.

It’s also a public health issue. FGM has no medical benefits and can cause medical harm. FGM has immediate health complications which could include severe pain, shock, and sepsis. Long-term consequences can include recurrent bladder and urinary tract infections, cysts, infertility and an increased risk of childbirth complications and newborn deaths.

Despite this, there is no law criminalizing the practice of FGM in Liberia. The Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Gender and Development have avoided speaking on the issue for fear of losing votes or retaliation from Sande members.

It is time for women and girls to reclaim control of their bodies, for the Government of Liberia to recognize FGM as a crime, and for NGOs to adopt culturally relevant programs that support the human rights of the women and girls of Liberia.

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10 Responses to “Call for a nationwide ban on female genital mutilation in Liberia”

  1. ksakyi1 Says:

    This is a very important topic. I have few questions. How many people are part of the Sande? What makes them so powerful to the extent that they resist a national government? If they are a secretive organization, I am curious how they exert influence publicly?

    • alenaskeels Says:

      Kwame, Sande is secret in that it is unclear what is said and done when members meet but it is widely accepted that membership in Sande (which is not a secret) is synonymous with FGM. This correlation is so strong that Sande membership is tracked in the Liberia DHS as a proxy for FGM. Sande doesn’t need to resist the national government because FGM is legal. Because almost half of all women in Liberia have FGM, and much more in rural areas, they have much political influence with local officials to keep FGM off the bargaining table.

  2. sbfphc Says:

    There is little question that circumcision of female children should stop and has great health risks (while ironically male circumcision can help prevent HIV transmission). The term ‘mutilation’ is culturally insensitive and offensive. Local populations do not think they are mutilating their female children, and if we used various tools in SBF-PHC (e.g. explanatory models, community involvement) we would realize that we can only help people change if we take the first steps to learn why they think the way they do and show respect while engaging in dialogue about how to improve health.

    • alenaskeels Says:

      I completely agree that we need to respect others’ cultural beliefs. FGM is the internationally recognized term for this cultural practice. There was a short span of time when leaders referred to FGM as female circumcision but the global community felt it sent the wrong message in medicalizing a procedure that has no medical benefit.

  3. ezektser Says:

    Thank you very much for posting on this important matter.I agree with your indisputable position regarding FGM. While I also agree with sbfphc’s position on the necessity of understanding the practice through understanding local culture, I do not think that FGM is simply a cultural practice that is misunderstood by Western societies. Studies have shown that FGM has no health benefits and is practiced primarily in societies with oppressive policies towards women. Unfortunately, I do think that mutilation is a very appropriate term to describe the practice as it is intended to deform the genitals to minimize the woman’s control of her genitals. In countries where FGM is illegal, many legal and government workers turn a blind eye and ignore the practice as protecting female citizens is not considered priority. Some government officials have even claimed that empowering girls/women is seen as a threat to their country. Additionally, religious justifications for performing FGM have largely been disputed by religious leaders. These country’s governments must absolutely take measures to ensure the abandonment of these practices in ways that are culturally sound, but not medically inaccurate.

  4. drrohitjain2010 Says:

    Female Genital mutilation (FMG) is a major crime against humanity. Cultural, religious and social factors play a major role. In 2008 WHO passed a resolution on the elimination of FMG, emphasizing the need for concerted action in all sectors – education, finance, justice and women’s affairs. Education plays an important role in society. Community leaders, religious leaders and family head are important in our society. I really support strong laws and severe punishment against people who conduct this crime. I agree it is time for women and girls to reclaim control of their bodies and government of Liberia to recognize FGM as a crime and take appropriate action to control this in future .

  5. asowinski Says:

    While I personally agree that FGM is a severe human rights violation and should be ended as soon as possible, SBFPHC makes a very valid point by noting that this practice cannot be changed or stopped without taking into account the cultural factors where FGM is practiced. Some areas of the world, such as Muslim regions of Indonesia (http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2013/03/25/asia-pacific/social-issues-asia-pacific/female-circumcision-not-mutilation-jakarta/#.VdURE_QtGYA), have altered the practice to be a symbolic pinprick, performed with a sterile needle in a health care clinic. Communities still see the ritual as fulfilling cultural needs to keep their daughters pure and transition to womanhood, but this method reduces the risks of infection after the procedure, and eliminates long-term complications associated with severe mutilation. While of course the ideal goal would be to end FGM altogether, an outright ban might force the procedures to be hastily done in secret by untrained workers, thus increasing the health risks of the practice. Allowing symbolic rituals might be a step in the right direction that balances the need to end mutilation with maintaining cultural traditions. I am wondering if anything similar to the “symbolic circumcisions” started in Indonesia has been attempted in Liberia?

    • alenaskeels Says:

      That’s an excellent point. Symbolic circumcision has not been tried in Liberia to my knowledge but I agree that it would be a great interim solution if culturally acceptable.

  6. woolleyliz Says:

    Such an important topic, and definitely presented in a way that educates about why it is damaging and how to reduce its prevalence. I think the emphasis placed on empowering women from and in these communities is very powerful and could have many other benefits. This seems to be an act that must be ended from within the cultural group. However, this I am sure will take time and have varying success. The author’s suggestion to criminalize FGM in Liberia could be a way to speed the process of reducing FGM, but it does seem as if many factors, such as international pressure, political pressure, cultural factors, and women’s empowerment all play some role.

  7. mhafez1 Says:

    It is mind boggling that in this day and age after the many proven disadvantages of female genital mutilation “circumcision” that it still prevails. The toll taken on these young girls due to this behaviour is often destructive. Side effects on the mental, social, physical well being is so sever and worth noting. This is truly a crime against humanity conducted on girls who are usually too young to understand the implications of this behaviour, and too scared to stand up for their basic rights. Behavioural change is difficult to attain when a behaviour is so well integrated culturally and religiously with parental consents. This is a very important issue that needs a strong and politically correct public health handling.

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