Breaking the Silence
Feminist leaders file landmark legal case against the Government of Sierra Leone as they demand the right to safety, dignity and bodily autonomy
by Nicky Spencer-Coker
In Sierra Leone where 83% of girls are subject to FGM, the possibility for eradicating the practice is to be found through the narrowest of windows, where strategic litigation meets activism. It’s in the collective power of the feminist movement combined with radical legal action that promises to break the culture of silence, reframe the language around FGM, and uphold the power and possibility of female-only spaces where girls and women’s bodies are fully their own.
As parliamentarians in The Gambia seek to roll back gains made by calling for a repeal of 2015 legislation prohibiting FGM (Female Genital Mutilation), just up the coast in Sierra Leone, a small gathering of activists and lawyers is working to ensure our legislative picture looks quite different. Pressure now mounts on the government to enact a law to explicitly ban FGM, as we bring two landmark legal cases into the international spotlight.
At least 200 million girls and women alive today are estimated to have undergone some form of the sexual violence and human rights violation that is FGM, involving the partial or total removal of the clitoris. Why Sierra Leone continues to have one of the highest rates of FGM in the world, despite signing a raft of international human rights conventions, is an increasingly urgent question in a country that continues to use the term ‘harmful cultural practice’ rather than name it as a manifestation of patriarchal violence in the control of women’s bodies and sexuality.
Of the 23 countries in Africa that have outlawed FGM, Sierra Leone remains an outlier. Since 2016, there have been two high-profile deaths from FGM that would have been quietly ignored but for the relentless agitating by frontline anti-FGM campaigners like the Forum Against Harmful Practices’ chairperson Rugiatu Neneh Turay who featured in this year’s BBC Africa documentary ‘For the Love of Fatmata’ — naming the pain and trauma of families. Entrenched through tradition, the cutting is cloaked in the secrecy that lies at the heart of the Bondo Society — the female sacred space — and in the belief that to become a woman and fit for marriage, you must be cut.
Breaking the silence is a seemingly impossible task in a country where a female member of parliament is known to have paid recently for the FGM initiation of upwards of 750 girls. FGM is ingrained in vote canvassing and streaked through our politics. Policy statements committing to protect children from harm wear woefully thin when, just ahead of the 24 June elections, parliament dissolved without the passage of what would have been a landmark Child Rights Act banning both child marriage and FGM of children.
If we cannot even protect our children from FGM in the name of culture, despite intense and ongoing advocacy and campaigns from survivor-led activists, just how then do we get justice?
At Purposeful, we believe the road to eradicating FGM may lie through the narrowest of windows in which strategic litigation meets activism. It’s in the collective power of the feminist movement combined with radical legal action that promises to break the culture of silence, reframe the language around FGM — that Bondo is the purview of women, not politicians — and uphold the power and possibility of female-only spaces where girls and women’s bodies are fully their own.
For us, along with FAHP and the Institute for Human Rights and Development Africa (IHRDA), the filing of two landmark cases — one in the courts of Sierra Leone and the other in the Economic Community of West Africa States, calls attention to the story of a woman who was forcibly cut and has been seeking justice ever since. The cases expose the failure of successive governments to protect our citizens from the harm of FGM, and the legal reform urgently needed to pull impunity out of the shadows.
Strategic litigation is one tool in the continuum of survivor centred advocacy. For many years, there has been talk among activists about bringing a case to the courts to highlight the injustice of FGM but finding a willing survivor had always proved difficult due to community pressure and cultural intimidation.
This huge stride busts the stereotype that ‘there are no victims, there are only willing participants,’ and now in the courtroom, it holds both the perpetrators and government to account, to make sure this never happens to any other girl or woman in Sierra Leone. Human Rights Lawyer, Yasmin Jusu-Sheriff, is absolutely right; “This is a Sierra Leonean fight led by Sierra Leonean women over practices that have always been against the law. They should be called out for what they are — crimes against the state — and dealt with accordingly by our justice system.”
The precedent has been set that bringing these types of cases to court is possible, and the world needs to listen far more to the people who know and understand this abuse for what it is. For now, our advocacy and efforts to protect women and girls will continue, striving to bring legal reform and change attitudes, community by community.
It’s global condemnation led by frontline activists that will ultimately save lives, and it’s time to ramp up global advocacy and pressure to ensure legislative change and the protection of girls and women from this harm. There are survivors willing to speak up, and it’s fully expected that these cases will serve as inspiration for other countries in the global fight against FGM.
Nicky Spencer-Coker is the Senior Legal Advisor for Purposeful, the world’s first Africa-rooted global hub for girls activism.