Female Genital Cutting – Why Liberia Must Join the Rest of the World and Outlaw the Practice

An opinion piece by Tetee Karneh. See original post here.

Liberia is a little country of 3.5 million people basking in the mindset that because we, unlike most of the rest of Africa, were never colonized by foreign powers, we were not infected by alien cultures.

But that mindset is wrong. Liberia’s openness to strangers has made us vulnerable to foreign practices. As strangers have settled into what we today know as the 16 tribes, their practices have become a way of life. One of them is female genital cutting.

Today, 10 of the 16 tribes practice female genital cutting (FGC, also know as female genital mutilation) to the chagrin of industrialized societies that regard it as a brutal violation of a woman’s human rights. As many as two out of every three Liberian girls are cut, many of them as part of the initiation into the Sande secret society. Sande prohibits women from ever talking about the practice or its impact on women’s health on pain of death. This hush-hush approach has allowed FGC to flourish here even as it is banned in other parts of West Africa.

Three million girls are cut each year in Africa alone, with up to 140 million women living with the effects. Twenty-one African countries have passed laws banning or partially banning cutting. Six – including Liberia – have not passed any law at all.

To date, efforts to end FGC have included legislation targeting medical professionals and families who perpetuate the practice, but political will and implementation remain an issue. It is time for governments across Africa – Liberia included – to pass laws banning the practice and not leave the decision to the practitioners.

FGC, as practiced in Liberia, requires the removal of the female clitoris – an extremely painful procedure practiced on girls as young as infants. The theory is that it will prevent a woman from enjoying sex and therefore being promiscuous. Other FGC communities view the clitoris and the labia as male parts of the body. Some think a woman is unclean until she has undergone this procedure and may not allow her to handle food or water. Some even believe that, if the clitoris touches a man’s penis, he will die or that an intact clitoris will generate sexual arousal. None of these are true. The main reason behind cutting is always to put the women under control while the men often remain promiscuous.

The long-term effects for women are horrible. For the most unlucky, cutting means death. One recent example involved 17-year-old Lotopoe Yeamah in New Yourpea, Nimba County. Lotopoe was pronounced dead on arrival at the Yourpea clinic after she was cut. Chief Zoe, Ma Beatrice Zah, blames the girl’s death on malaria, although no one sees how this is possible. Even the biggest proponents of cutting would argue that a girl should not be cut while sick with malaria. The death of a girl at age 17 is a difficult thing for parents. Since Lotopoe was under 18, what should be done is for all involved to face prosecution to deter others. We may agree that space should be given for you to practice what you believe, but it does not give you the right to cause the death of another.

Cutting can also mean death for unborn children. The process of giving birth requires the full elasticity of the woman’s vagina to allow the head and body of a baby to come out of the mother. Studies now show that cutting interrupts this process by creating scar tissue that impedes elasticity. This not only makes childbirth much more painful for the mother, but it can also cause the vagina to block the baby’s passage, suffocating the unborn child in the womb. One woman in Egypt lost seven of her babies for this reason, according to Orchid Project, a UK-based charity working to end FGC.

Cutting can limit a girl’s opportunities for advancement. Girls are more likely to drop out of school when involved in Sande activities, according to a Ministry of Gender and Development/UNFPA study in April 2011. The study specifically recommended that nobody should be initiated below age 18 and no woman should be initiated without her consent.

FGC kills a woman’s desire for sex, said a woman who was cut here in Liberia. “This is what got me like this,” the woman told me, asking that her name not be revealed. No woman ever gets over the pain and shock of cutting, she said. “I think we all just cope.” The woman has now learned that cutting is not needed and that the painful menstruation, sex and childbirth she has endured were caused by this unnecessary procedure. “I am to be used all my life only to provide pleasure for men, which leaves me wondering at times what it would have been on the other side of the coin.” She is thinking about writing a book to tell her story, believing that if more women tell their story fewer girls will be cut. “It’s the stories that will work the abandonment magic if other women in this country are free to talk about it,” she said.

Though the government has dared to venture into a subject that is spoken of only among members, there is a lot more that needs to be done to stop the next blade from descending to cut the next little girl. The country has made significant strides to ensure the promotion and protection of girls’ and women’s rights by enacting laws as well as adopting numerous policies against all harmful traditional practices, including FGC. One of these has been the passage of the Children’s Act prohibiting “all forms of harmful practices” against persons under age 18. The new education policy also prohibits parents from taking their girls for initiation into any traditional society, especially the Sande, during school time.

Other initiatives have been undertaken to educate and sensitize, as well as provide alternative sources of income for FGC practitioners in Liberia. Eighty cutters from two (Bomi and Gbarpolu) of the 10 counties practicing cutting were trained in small business management in September 2011. Similar training is scheduled for Bong, Cape Mount and Lofa counties. Additionally, a national conference is pending to discuss all forms of harmful traditional and cultural practices.

One former practitioner was recently certificated by the Ministry of Gender and Development during their honoring and recognition program for actually abandoning the practice.

It is clear that changing an age-old cultural practice is not an event but a process, and the government should be commended for its efforts. But the urgent need to stop cutting demands far more action.

I actually went to see a Zoe to find out what could be the possible cause of death in Lotopoe’s case. “You and I will not discuss this thing FGC,” she said. “You are not a member, and you will not be asking me any questions. This is our tradition. You people want to force the white man’s tradition on us.” Ma Vonyee was dressed in her brown and yellow lappa with a black blouse and head tie. She looked straight in my face with cold eyes and, with that, walked briskly away without looking back. It was a different side of the woman who came to me smiling at first, maybe expecting something else.

There is nowhere in the Bible where God asked us to circumcise a woman. He knows all things. ALL THINGS. He cannot forget, is not capable of forgetting, and certainly didn’t forget that. Research has established that FGC has never been part of Christianity as a faith system.

In countries where Muslims practice FGC, they justify it in the words of the Prophet Mohammed. But there are no instructions in the Qur’an or in the writings of the Prophet Mohammed which require that the clitoris be surgically modified. Thus, God must approve of its presence.

In Senegal, groups like the US-based Tostan project have played a role in achieving the passage of laws banning FGC. There, women talk openly about the health implications. Even former cutters say they are sorry about this age-old tradition. In Keur Simbara, one of the villages that have stopped FGC practice, a former cutter, Oureye Sall, told a group of journalists from the Washington-based Population Reference Bureau (PRB) that she had called on all cutters to abandon the practice.

“We didn’t do it because we were wicked, but because it was handed down to us by tradition as something good,” she lamented. Oureye said that she too had lost a child to the practice. She has abandoned this only way of livelihood she has known all her life and is selling peanuts to survive.

Data collected in recent years gives hope to those fighting for an end to FGC. The number of girls aged 15 to 19 being cut globally fell in 2010, according to PRB. We hope that fall marks the beginning of the end of this practice.

We hope the government’s compulsory primary and junior school education scheme will minimize FGC while we await news of its abolition by law.

A tiny flicker of hope loomed last year when Sande members were arrested and prosecuted for abducting and initiating a woman in Western Liberia. They are now serving time for kidnap and the forceful initiation of a woman.

It is time to introduce a law and make an urgent effort to end this outdated practice. Stopping FGC will give peace to Lotopoe and so many other victims. It will also save many more girls from ending up like her.