Human Rights Dialogue (1994–2005): Series 2, No. 3 (Summer 2000): Silence Breaking: The Women's Dimension of the Human Rights Box: Articles: Ending Female Genital Mutilation without Human Rights: Two Approaches-Sierra Leone

Aug 6, 2000

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is an act of violence against women and girls and a human rights violation. But it is also a cultural tradition, deeply rooted in religious and social convictions, and ensures marriage prospects for girls. Many who choose to deviate from other patriarchal social norms accept FGM because there is tremendous social pressure to go through with the practice.

Simply condemning FGM as inhumane, or a human rights abuse, does little to stop it. In my discussions with local women, I have found it more effective to avoid the cultural and religious rationales of the practice and instead concentrate on the associated health risks, creating a more comfortable atmosphere in which to discuss this highly charged issue. Most women accept the fact that FGM causes numerous health-related problems that they would not like their daughters to experience; some have themselves experienced such problems, including chronic infection, damaged organs, intermittent bleeding, and infertility. Thus they more readily accept health-based rather than human rights arguments as justifications for resisting long-standing practices. A rights-based approach, on the other hand, which claims that a woman’s culture violates her and her daughters’ civil rights, is difficult for her to understand and controversial to accept.

Using the health approach to work toward the eradication of FGM requires a lot of patience, particularly as one is often dealing with illiterate and uneducated women. To the extent possible given the ongoing civil war, I travel throughout the country to hold sensitization programs with women in local market squares or in compounds of village heads. One argument women in the villages often present to me is that FGM is the same as male circumcision: boys are circumcised, therefore girls should be too. I counter such thinking by pointing out that FGM is usually performed when a girl is between the ages of five and ten, whereas boys are circumcised shortly after birth, which rarely has harmful effects.

Using such an approach, I find that I am often able to convince women that FGM should be halted. A traditional practitioner told me a few weeks ago that since she attended my sensitization program on the health effects of FGM last year, she has not mutilated a single girl. She used to mutilate about 12 girls a month. She is now trying to form an organization in her village that will educate women and girls about the health problems that FGM causes.

When it comes to raising awareness of domestic violence, however, I can use human rights language because it is a comparatively less culturally entrenched issue than is FGM. Patriarchy in Sierra Leone runs deep and wife beating is culturally sanctioned, but domestic violence is not a community-wide celebration and female rite of passage as is FGM. When addressing domestic violence among groups of women, I begin by defining basic human rights and explaining the protections offered at the local, regional, and global levels. I then teach them about more specific topics such as violence against women, inequality, and human rights tools and treaties such as the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). I often ask the women to talk about their status within the family and how they are treated. Then, using their experiences, I point out examples of the concepts I have already explained and the specific human right that is being violated, such as the right to human dignity or the right to freedom from torture and degrading treatment. The women are usually surprised. I remember one woman in particular who was astonished to learn that when her husband beat her and refused her food, he was violating both national law and international human rights treaties. She had thought that this was just a part of marriage, but now she knows it is wrong.

I have found that being an educated, male Sierra Leonean greatly helps my cause, whether I am discussing FGM or other women’s rights issues. Because women’s rights are usually violated by men, the women are more open to arguments against such behavior coming from one of these men, and they believe that a man advocating their rights will be more effective in changing the attitudes of other men within the community. In Sierra Leone, a great deal of respect is accorded to educated people, whose every word is often taken as truth. My qualifications as a lawyer lend me, and thus human rights concepts, a great deal of credibility among both men and women.

To read the second part of this article, click here.

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