Dear President Julius Maada Bio,
We, women’s rights actors living and working in Kenya, are pleased to welcome you to Kenya on this Madaraka Day. We applaud your efforts to uphold the rights of young women in Sierra Leone. In 2020 you lifted the education ban, thus ensuring all students, including pregnant girls, access basic education.
Sierra Leone has also 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 prevent the violation of women’s rights and also to respond, in the event that violations occur.
However, Mr President, there is yet one more step which 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 of female genital mutilation (FGM).
Mr President, both the World Health Organization and the Centre for Disease Control have found that this harmful practise has 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 those 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 is a human rights violation and illegal. Sierra Leone’s most recent Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) reports that nearly 90 per cent of women and girls in the country have been subjected to FGM. There have also been reports of deaths as a result of FGM related complications.
Mr President, whereas communities that practice FGM give many reasons for the 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 practise 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 President Uhuru Kenyatta has committed that ending FGM will be his legacy this year.
Kenya’s efforts have borne fruit, with prevalence rates falling to 21 per cent from 37.6 a few years ago, according to the United Nations Fund for Population.
The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action in 1995 identified ending FGM as essential to realizing girls’ rights, including the right to education which your government is actively implementing.
We hope that as you return to Sierra Leone you will take these successes for women and girls and make them a common point of action and commitment between our two great nations.
Faiza Mohamed is Regional Director- Africa Office, Equality Now. This open letter is a collaboration of actors working in Kenya and Sierra Leone towards a just world for women and girls in Africa.