Proposed Bill Against FGM ‘Very Weak’

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Just days before President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s annual message, where she implored the Legislature to enact several proposed bills into law, such as the Domestic Violence Act, two Kenyan rights activists in Monrovia critiqued the section of the proposed bill concerning FGM, calling it “weak… vague, bleak and ambiguous and lacks grit to prosecute offenders.”

“As a mother and a woman leader,” President Sirleaf said in her message yesterday, “the record is clear on my response to the issues of women and children, particularly in support of their economic participation, their participation in governance, and their protection from violence…

“We must enact laws that protect our girls and women,” she continued. “I have thus submitted the Domestic Violence Act, which I trust you will soon enact into law.”

However, the two women’s rights advocates, Grace Uwizeye and Florence Machio, described the proposed bill as “very weak” and clearly indicates that government is doing little to protect women, mostly the vulnerable, through the enactment of strong laws that would deter perpetrators.

The two Kenyan women were on a brief visit to Liberia where they had the opportunity to review some laws that protect women’s rights. Machio is a renowned Kenyan journalist, while Uwizeye is a Lawyer by profession and currently serves as program officer of Equality Now, an international non-governmental organization. According to Uwizeye, what Liberia has drafted cannot protect women because there is no concrete penalty for perpetrators. “What is there that will deter perpetrators? We see nothing,” she said.

Ambiguously, the draft is proposing that government renders services to perpetrators in the form of counselling, though nothing is mentioned about the victims in terms of compensation or treatment – something that is being described as a disgrace. Journalist Machio could not agree more on the weakness of the proposed bill.

Both women spoke at a one-day media consolidation forum on FGM (female genital mutilation, also known as female circumcision) held recently in Monrovia.

Twenty eight of the 54 African states practice FGM, although 24 of those involved have adopted anti-FGM laws.

While other states have enacted harsher laws to prosecute perpetrators of FGM, Liberia’s proposed bill is “vague, bleak and ambiguous and lacks grit to prosecute offenders,” the Kenyan activists said.

Worse, they said, is that the proposed bill recommends the same penalties used for lesser forms of domestic violence such as beatings for FGM perpetrators.

They named The Gambia, Nigeria, Kenya and Burkina Faso as countries that “have done good jobs in drafting laws that protect women against FGM, though the acts might be going on secretly.”

The practice of FGM has serious health, economic, social and developmental consequences for the victims and society.

The Gambia Law, passed early this year, stipulates that a person who engages in female circumcision could face up to three years in prison or a fine of US$1,250 and could face life imprisonment if the act results in death. The Nigerian anti-FGM law, passed in May 2015, also bans FGM, with offenders imprisoned for four years or fined not more than US$1,000 or both. This is also similar in Burkina Faso and Kenya.

The weakness of the Liberian proposed bill is exposed by the leniency of the penalties stipulated. Perpetrators and those who aid in the process are punished by a fine, which lies within the purview of the judge, who also has the power to order counselling sessions for perpetrators.

The proposed bill states: “When a defendant has been convicted of domestic violence, the court may require that the defendant attend a domestic violence counseling or rehabilitation; impose a fine pursuant to section 50.9, of which 25 percent shall go to the Domestic Violence Victim Fund or other compensation as provided in the Penal Law.”

“What is in this bill to scare perpetrators from the act in an effort to protect women? This in my mind is a joke,” Mrs. Machio said, adding that the country needs a stronger bill.

President Sirleaf’s promises to protect Liberian women from harmful acts such as FGM seem not to be coming to fruition under such a bill when enacted.

Many had expected Madam Sirleaf, as Africa’s first elected female president, to lead the charge in this regard.

She committed government to several international conventions and protocols aimed at protecting women and children. Some of these instruments include the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, the Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child and the Maputo Declaration.

All of these call for the elimination of discrimination, rights to dignity, life and integrity, though the Maputo protocol is the first human rights instrument that explicitly mentions FGM as a harmful practice.

“If all of these were signed by the president to protect women, then why is the implementation of these (protocols) going so slowly?” one female participant asked during the meeting.

“The president needs to leave a legacy for women in this country and one of these would be putting an end to violence against us, but I’m worried that this is not happening,” the participant said.

The President recently reiterated her pledge to ending FGM in Liberia when she addressed a global meeting on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment last year in New York. She promised to ensure the Domestic Violence Bill (DVB) is passed into law, banning FGM before her tenure ends, while also promising to collaborate with Lawmakers to enact the proposed DVB. It was endorsed by Cabinet and approved by the President in 2015 and is currently before the lawmakers for enactment.

The content of the bill is a cause for concern as it doesn’t in anyway foresee the actualization of the president’s promise at that global event.

FGM involves removal of the female genitalia with consequences such as death and health implications, including chronic infection, severe pain during urination and menstruation.

More women are currently living with the consequences of FGM, with Somalia, 98 percent; Liberia, 58 percent, being among the worst.

The proposed DVB is an initiative of the Ministry of Gender, Child and Social Protection. After spending months at the Legislature, it was recently sent back to the Ministry for what seems to be lapses in the process.

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