Here in Liberia we are marking the International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation. We want to end this brutal practice that stands out as one of the most significant sexual and reproductive health crises of the 21st century.
When I was growing up we used to spend the Christmas holidays in my grandmother’s hometown in central Liberia. One year, when I was about six, my father instead took my sisters and me to be initiated in a ‘traditional’ school where female genital mutilation was practised.
The implication was obvious. Yet on the day we were supposed to be ‘cut’, my father had a change of heart. Early that morning, he bundled us into his car and we sped off.
Now, as an adult, a committed women’s rights activist and a feminist, I thank my father every day for reneging on his initial agreement because I talk to women who were not so lucky. They have to live with the impact that female genital mutilation has had on their lives.
Female genital mutilation takes away a girl’s right to control over her body
Female genital mutilation reflects deep-rooted inequality between men and women. It is a way of controlling a girl’s sexuality and her virginity before marriage and ensuring her chastity afterwards.
In Liberia as elsewhere, the practice is shrouded in powerful secrecy; whether a girl experiences mutilation or not is determined by her family, in most cases within an extremely private sphere. It is reinforced by societal consensual action, which takes away a girl or woman’s right to control her body.
Such secrecy creates a challenge in bringing visibility to a practice that is endorsed by thousands of communities globally, but has a horrific effect. But secrecy and tradition is not an excuse. In addition to reinforcing inequality it is also extremely painful and traumatic, causing long-term physical and psychological harm.
Miatta’s experience of mutilation
Miatta’s story* is vivid, heart-breaking and typical of many. She was mutilated at the age of 13 but was told that because she did not cry from the pain, this was an indication of her being sexually active. Miatta was ‘cut’ for the second time in the space of a week.
She has not forgotten the hurt, pain, betrayal and silence of her father, who did not stop his wife – her stepmother – from doing this to his daughter. The horror remained with her for a long time and on many mornings she woke in the early hours and filled a journal with her pain, sense of loss and frustration and, sometimes, her tears.
Not only do girls like Miatta have to suffer the after-effects and trauma of being mutilated, female genital mutilation also affects their enrolment in and completion of school. In many communities, once a girl undergoes female genital mutilation, she is seen as ‘ready for marriage’ and often drops out of school soon after.
This was certainly the case in Liberia. In the past, girls spent close to three months or more in the ‘traditional’ school after being cut and on completion were viewed as eligible for marriage based on cultural values.
This context may have changed over time, but the challenge remains. Regrettably, female genital mutilation is still common in Liberia, particularly in the northwest and central northern regions, and there is no legal provision to prohibit its practice. There have even been attacks and threats against activists who oppose mutilation.
Female genital mutilation is not only a Liberian or African problem
Female genital mutilation has no borders and, given economic global dynamics and shifts of populations across continents, it has become a key focus of law-making in many countries.
The good news is that it is now illegal in 36 countries, of which 15 are in Africa, and that prosecutions are starting to happen.
Whilst an estimated three million girls still undergo female genital mutilation each year, that number is dropping through the concerted efforts of female and male activists, who support support local laws and policing with public education campaigns and concrete action.
To put it at its most basic, female genital mutilation is an issue of justice and rights – cutting away a young girl’s genitals for no medical reason is dangerous, traumatic and just plain wrong. So internationally, one simple but critical thing that people can do to raise awareness is to denounce the common position that ‘cultural’ practices are valuable to a society’s growth and they are beyond criticism.
And as a Liberian, I want to issue a challenge to my President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who has received a Nobel Peace Prize and multiple international accolades for the advancement of women’s rights. I say to her:
Please do not be silent on female genital mutilation. Act as an advocate both within Liberia and internationally. It is vital that human rights laws and influential bodies such as the UN are brought into play, and that every available option is used to combat a brutal practice that affects women and girls in all stages of their lives.
None of us can afford to be silent about female genital mutilation.
*names have been changed