Liberia: House Reviews Bill to Outlaw FGM

The bill is titled an ‘Act Prohibiting Female Genital Mutilation of 2022 and is sponsored by Deputy  Speaker Cllr. J. Fonati Koffa.   

“The data is abundant and clear, that FGM has enormous psychosocial, social, and political implications far beyond the painful procedure usually practiced by non-medical personnel,” said Deputy Speaker J. Fonati Koffa 

The House of Representatives is reviewing a bill to put an end to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in the country.

The bill is titled an ‘Act Prohibiting Female Genital Mutilation of 2022’. If it becomes law, it could fulfill the wishes of activists who have long campaigned for FGM to be outlawed in Liberia, a country of about 4.6 million people. Supporters of FGM argued that the ritual, involving the partial or total removal of the external genitalia, is a key rite of passage. According to the WHO,  it often causes health problems and can be fatal.

But for Deputy  Speaker, Cllr. J. Fonati Koffa, who is sponsoring the bill, it is now time for Liberian democracy to protect the weak by tackling the painful debate of the harmful traditional practice of ‘FGM.’

“The data is abundant and clear, that FGM has enormous psychosocial, social, and political implications far beyond the painful procedure usually practiced by non-medical personnel,” Koffa said. 

“It is within the spirit of a right to privacy enshrined in the Liberian Constitution and the global recognition that harmful traditional practices must be abolished, that we lay this piece of legislation before plenary for debate and hopeful passage so no longer will a Liberian woman or girl live through the trauma of the violation of her privacy or the mutilation of her body.”

He argued that in the country, the evidence is overwhelming that the costs of the traditional practices outweigh the benefits, and invidious discrimination is meted out to one section of our society, “We must act.” FGM affects more than 140 million girls and women across a swathe of Africa and parts of the Middle East and Asia and is seen as a gateway to marriage and a way of preserving a girl’s purity. It causes numerous health problems that can be fatal, according to WHO.

Half of Liberian women have been subjected to FGM, and four in 10 support the practice in a country where it is carried out by all but a few tribes, and by both Muslim and Christian communities, according to the U.N. children’s agency (UNICEF).

But the practice has never been outlawed in Liberia. Just before she left office in January 2018, the President of Liberia at the time, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, signed an executive order on the Domestic Violence bill to ban FGM on girls under 18 years old for one year. The punishments at the time included rehabilitation and fines, which are determined on a case-by-case basis by traditional leaders.

Other than the temporary ban on FGM, various iterations of the bill seeking to make the practice a criminal offense have in the past suffered significant setbacks, with lawmakers dismissing the issue as a cultural matter. In 2019, for example, Gender Minister Piso Saydee Tarr backed the removal of FGM from the Domestic Violence Bill, which President George Manneh Weah signed into law that same year.

“I should not always be the one speaking on this issue as to why FGM was removed from the Domestic Violence Bill because we have been living with culture and tradition for many years in Liberia and something that has been done for centuries cannot be changed overnight,” Tarr argued then. 

So it is yet to be seen if, this time around, the bill submitted by Deputy Speaker Koffa will be passed. 

In fact, the few cases that have gone through the justice system have been covered under Section 242 of the Penal Code which speaks to malicious and unlawful injuries towards another person by cutting off or otherwise depriving him or her of any of the members of his body, finding a person guilty of a felony. This is punishable by up to five years in prison.

FGM is practiced in the West African nation during traditional initiation ceremonies in bush schools, overseen by an immensely powerful women’s secret society called the Sande. While FGM contravenes human rights treaties to which Liberia is a party, campaigners say the government has been reluctant to take a stand because of Sande’s political clout.

Liberia remains one of the few African countries that do not have a law criminalizing FGM despite having signed and ratified regional and international human rights instruments condemning the practice as a human rights violation, including the Maputo Protocol.

The FGM bill, which the House been forwarded to  Committees on Internal Affairs, Judiciary,  and Gender Equity, Child Development, and Social Services is being sponsored by Koffa, and co-sponsored by  Representatives Thomas Goshua, Isaac Roland, Ceebee C.D. Barshell, Richard Koon, and Rustonlyn Suacoco Dennis.

A copy of the bill is expected to be given to each lawmaker to engage constituents in the counties during their July recess (break) and the constituency engagement is expected to be facilitated (funded) by the House of Representatives. Also, the report from the Committees will be made in January 2023.

Koffa added that nearly three years ago when the Legislature formed a bipartisan coalition to pass the Domestic Violence Bill, he promised the women and children of Liberia that he will champion an anti-FGM bill.

Meanwhile, the House of Representatives is also reviewing a proposed amendment of Rules and Procedures written by the Deputy Speaker.

Koffa is requesting the cancellation of‘ Yea and Nay’ voting, to be replaced with ‘Showing of Hands’ or ‘standing’. 

“The amendment being offered with this letter allows for official recording of votes of the members on all bills, budget, concession agreements, and similar  Instruments,” he said.  “Recording our votes for the permanent record will signal to Liberia and the world that we are prepared to be judged by the current and historic record of our position on our principal functions of lawmaking.”

He added: “This amendment will also allow vigorous monitoring  by our constituents and will serve the rebranding and reform  agenda to which we are committed.”