Sierra Leone Telegraph: 11 July 2016
Since her appointment as minister of social welfare, gender and children’s affairs early this year, there have been immense debate and speculation as to how Dr Sylvia Blyden would handle the controversial issue of female circumcision.
Would she be swayed by the vociferous campaign led by western governments and their international agencies calling for the outright banning of female circumcision in Africa; or would she stand by her usual, dogged single-mindedness that drives her politics, which she consistently and broadly describe as libertarianism and the championing of women’s rights?
The issue of female circumcision is arguably one of the most polarised and poisonous debates taking place in Africa today. It has divided families, communities and religious faiths.
In Sierra Leone, it is unclear where president Koroma stands on the issue. But his former social welfare minister was clear about his position on the matter. “Sierra Leone will not ban female circumcision,” he said.
So where does the current social welfare minister – Dr Blyden stand on female circumcision?
Speaking last week to a large gathering of international development agencies, NGOs and dignitaries, attending the biennial general meeting of the women’s rights campaigning 50/50 Group, held at the British Council Hall in Freetown, she could not have been clearer. This is what she said:
“Madam Chairperson, ladies and gentlemen, before I end this address, I want to highlight and focus attention on the issue of what is widely considered as a harmful traditional practice and this is what we now reference by the acronym of FGM (Female Genital Mutilation).
I am going to speak on it both from the point of the trained and fully qualified medical doctor that I am, as well as from the point of a female Gender Activist.
FGM evokes mixed feelings because of the very obvious medical repercussions that can result from it including Vesico-Vaginal Fistula which can leave a woman so affected that she has to live a life of grave misery.
Such fistulas can be a result of scarring around the genital area which complicates childbirth and damages the wall between the vagina and anal cavity. The scarring in many cases have been linked to be as a result of badly performed FGM.
For such reasons, many people frown upon FGM especially as FGM can be forcefully undertaken on young girls creating huge psychological trauma they suffer for the rest of their lives.
It is because of such reasons that the United Nations urges all States to work towards ending such forceful mutilations and initiations.
Here in Sierra Leone, although there is currently no law that explicitly prohibits the practice, the government of His Excellency President Koroma remains committed and is encouraging awareness raising and advocacy around the issue.
In addition, laws that prohibit cruelty and torture, especially against the girl child, can be applied to those who forcefully subject Sierra Leonean females to cutting of their anatomical parts.
I repeat, under this government, the laid down laws and statutory provisions which prohibit cruelty and torture, especially against the girl child, are going to be applied to those who think they can forcefully subject Sierra Leonean females to traumatic cutting of their anatomical parts.
Within the Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment pillar of the Agenda for Prosperity (Pillar 8), there is a strong commitment to enact a law that criminalize forceful initiation which by definition will include children under the age of 18 years who cannot be considered as legally able to make such decisions involving optional plastic surgery to their anatomy.
Additionally, a National Strategy for the Reduction of FGM/C (2016-2020) is being developed.
However, and this is very important, the aspect of total banning of the practice is something that we have to critically reconsider as against the right of an adult woman to elect to undertake surgical exercise on her genitals.
In Western countries, their women choose to willingly undergo cutting and re-shaping of their genital parts and no-one prohibits them from undertaking what are known in medical terms as LABIAPLASTY or CLITORIDOTOMY.
These two are surgical procedures that cut the labia and cut or re-shape the clitoris of women. In other words, mutilation of their genitals.
Therefore, the insistence from some quarters for an “elimination” of what they term as “female genital mutilation” is, I daresay, an exhibition of tunnel vision.
Those proponents have to start thinking outside the box. If an adult Sierra Leone woman opts to follow the traditions of her female ancestors and willingly elects to have her genitals cut or re-sized, I will respect her right to do what she wants to do with her body.
When you can get the United States of America, Great Britain and other Western countries to ban or eliminate labiaplasty and clitoridotomy (i.e: mutilation of their genitals) amongst adult women in those Western countries, then you can come to Sierra Leone and get us to ban such among our adult women who seek to have such.
Having said that, let me reiterate the position of the Government of Sierra Leone, that based upon the Memorandum of Understanding that has been signed by Traditional Leaders and FGM practitioners to stop under age initiations and female genital mutilations, this government will heavily clamp down on any Sowei or Practitioner who forces a girl child under the age of 18 years to undergo cutting of her anatomical parts against her will.
Already, I have held series of meetings with the leadership of the National Sowei Council and they have assured me that no child will be initiated.
Recently, a series of reports of forceful initiation of girl children in certain parts of the country, had no less entities than the National Sowei Council take the lead in supporting the law enforcement agencies to undertake investigations into the matter.
I continue to remain very proud of our Soweis, Digbas and Bondo Women of Sierra Leone. And I urge all women to step up to the plate and support Bondo Women, as we all work to protect our female children from various forms of violence.” (End of speech).
Loathe or like her style of politics, many of her supporters and admirers will today argue that based on her decision to stand for civil liberty and women’s right to choose, while at the same time upholding and protecting the right of the child, Dr Sylvia Blyden’s speech is set to shape incoming legislation and government policy on female circumcision.
Sierra Leone is a society deeply rooted in cultural and traditional practices, and it seems the minister has the support of the majority of people in the country.