Justice for Ruth Berry Peal, who was forcibly mutilated in Liberia, but still no ban on FGM

Over 58% of women have already undergone FGM in Liberia, where the powerful Sande secret society continues to carry it out on young girls

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The Independent Online

Talk of ‘abandonment’ of FGM is not realistic in African communities where it is still practised.

The brutal realities of FGM as a severe form of violence against women and girls are clearly demonstrated by a recent case which Equality Now worked on with local partners in Liberia. 

It is over three years since Ruth Berry Peal was kidnapped and forcibly subjected to FGM in Bomi County, Western Liberia.  In January 2010, she had an argument with two women from the Gola ethnic group and was summoned by the chief who ruled that she should undergo FGM as punishment.  The following day, Ruth was forcibly taken from her home to the ‘bush’ where she was mutilated in an initiation ritual.  She was forced to take an oath of secrecy and was threatened with death if she broke the oath.  She was kept there for a month and developed health complications, which required treatment for some time afterwards. 

Following her release, Ruth filed a lawsuit against the two women who forcibly mutilated her.  Despite receiving numerous death threats as well as being sent to prison herself on two occasions, Ruth finally got the justice she deserves last week after a warrant was issued for the arrest of the two female perpetrators, subsequent to their unsuccessful appeal.  However, she is still in danger and cannot return home to her family in safety.

Over 58% of women have already undergone FGM in Liberia, where the powerful Sande secret society continues to carry it out on young girls. FGM is a "vote-catcher" and governments avoid asserting their authority when it comes to traditional power structures such as secret societies.  Despite Nobel Peace Prize-Winning President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s pledge to make women’s rights and health a national priority in Liberia, it is of great concern to note the lack of government intervention in cases such as Ruth’s, as well as remarks by the Minister of Information in media reports indicating that the government has no plans to end FGM.

We have been alarmed too by other related developments in Liberia.  In March 2012, journalist Mae Azango was forced into hiding after publishing a story on FGM.  Members of the Sande society have also threatened to forcibly subject her to FGM.  Meanwhile, in May last year, more than 750 girls, believed to have been encouraged by Sande members, underwent FGM in Nimba County, despite the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ notice to stop Sande activities.  Speaking to local organisations on the ground, it is clear that only the government can fully take on Sande members, since even grassroots organisations are too scared to deal with these.

Equality Now continues to call on the Liberian government to ensure that Ruth Berry Peal is fully safeguarded from harm and is allowed to return home in safety to live with her family.  We also call on President Johnson Sirleaf to enforce her promise to put an end to Sande FGM activities.  Liberia is a signatory of various international and regional human rights commitments, which means that it should enact and enforce comprehensive legislation against FGM as a matter of urgency.  The Liberian government has left this issue for civil society to deal with for far too long and needs to step up its work to eliminate this brutality once and for all.

Furthermore, a unified stance on this issue is needed, where all countries agree to co-operate in the prevention and prosecution of crimes relating to FGM.  The African-led UN Global Ban is a major step in the right direction.  What we need now is not just education and ‘sensitisation’ of communities to the issue, but a comprehensive response which includes the enactment of laws banning FGM in all countries which have so far failed to do so, followed by the forceful implementation of these laws by all governments.