By Emma Batha
LONDON (TrustLaw) - Two members of a powerful Liberian secret society who kidnapped a mother of eight in northwest Liberia and forced her to undergo female genital mutilation have been sentenced to three years’ jail, activists said on Tuesday.
Campaigners immediately called on Liberia’s president, Nobel Peace Laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, to outlaw the brutal practice, which has been internationally condemned as a gross human rights abuse.
Ruth Berry Peal’s ordeal began in 2010 when she was kidnapped from her home and mutilated by two women from the Sande society – a politically influential secret women’s association.
The long-drawn-out trial of the two women ended a fortnight ago, when they lost an appeal against their conviction for kidnapping and felonious restraint, but the Liberian media did not report it, fearing reprisals.
Liberia – unlike many other African countries – has not banned FGM, which involves the partial or total removal of the clitoris and other external genitalia.
Over 58 percent of women have undergone FGM in Liberia where the practice is carried out through the Sande society as part of an initiation rite into womanhood.
Campaigners say Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first female president, has been reluctant to speak out because of the power of the Sande.
“At this crucial point, we call on Liberia and all other countries where FGM is legal to enact a law which prohibits the practice as a matter of urgency and which fully safeguards the fundamental human rights of girls," said Efua Dorkenoo, FGM advocacy director at international rights group Equality Now.
Dorkenoo said it was particularly important to raise Berry Peal’s case internationally as the climate of fear in Liberia has silenced the country’s media.
"Despite President Sirleaf’s pledge to make women’s rights and health a national priority in Liberia, it is greatly concerning to note the lack of government intervention in Ruth and Mae's cases, as well as remarks by the minister of information in media reports indicating that the government has no plans to end FGM,” Dorkenoo said.
Up to 140 million women worldwide have been subjected to FGM, which is widely viewed by the communities practising it as a prerequisite for marriage.
In December the United Nations passed a resolution calling for a global ban on FGM. Most of the 28 African countries where it is carried out have passed laws banning the practice, and some are making a concerted effort to eradicate it.
International campaigners say they face strong resistance in Liberia, and in Sierra Leone where the Sande is also very powerful.
CALL FOR INTERNATIONAL HELP
Equality Now said Berry Peal, who lived with her husband and children in Bomi County, northwest Liberia, was kidnapped from her home in April 2010, a day after she had an argument with two women from the Gola ethnic group.
The Gola chief ruled that Berry Peal should be mutilated, even though she belongs to an ethnic group that does not practise FGM.
Berry Peal said she was blindfolded and drops were put in her mouth before she was forced to undergo FGM. “I got very weak. I couldn't even shake, I couldn't fight. I was only feeling pain," she told Equality Now in a recent interview.
She was held for a month, forced to take an oath of secrecy and told she would be killed if she spoke out.
Berry Peal, who developed health complications which required extensive treatment, told Equality Now she would have died if she had not received help. She said she still suffers psychological and health problems and has been tormented by her attackers since her ordeal.
The women responsible for the assault were tried and convicted of kidnapping and felonious restraint in 2011, but they appealed and were released on bail. On February 26, an appeal court judge upheld the conviction and ordered them to begin serving their sentences.
Berry Peal’s lawyer, Dedeh Jomah Wilson, urged the international community to help Liberia raise awareness of FGM and pass a law banning its use.
FGM, which is practised by half a dozen ethnic groups in Liberia, is generally carried out between the ages of eight and 18. Many girls undergo the ritual at traditional Sande schools which prepare them for adulthood.
The practice can cause many health problems including haemorrhage, cysts, chronic infections, psychological trauma and childbirth difficulties. Some girls bleed to death or die from infections.
Campaigners say that FGM violates Liberia’s constitution - which guarantees the right to life, liberty and security – as well as several human rights treaties to which Liberia is a party.
Equality Now said the local Gola community was still threatening Berry Peal, who has sought temporary refuge with a women’s group in a slum in the capital Monrovia. The government has advised her to move to Monrovia permanently, but she does not want to leave her husband and children.