By Foday B. Fofanah……………………………………
My friend and brother, the late Ibrahim Tayyib-Bah was a man of many talents. He was a versatile journalist, an active trade unionist, a grassroots politician, a shrewd businessman, but what many people who were not very close to him did not know about him was that he was a comedian, per excellence because he told funny jokes. He told me a joke that stuck with me to this day. This was a joke about a homosexual and a High Judge.
The joke went like this: this young man lives in a country that outlaws homosexuals, and those who enter into same-sex relationships face a death penalty. Tired of living in the shadows, this young man decided to go public and damn the consequences. “I’m gay and proud,” he announced. He was arrested and charged to court. When his charges that read like an epistle of John were read to him, he wasted no time and declared: “I’m guilty as charged, my Lord,” he pleaded. The Judge, like the rest of the court, was stunned. By his plea, the young man faces the harshest punishment: death. Probably, to give the accused another chance to change his plea or plead insanity or beg for leniency, the Judge asked: “Do you have anything to say before I pass sentence on you, young man?” This was the moment the young man was waiting for. “Yes, my Lord,” he answered. “Go ahead, say it,” the Judge encouraged him, relieved that the young man had taken his bait to make a case for the court to spare his life. Indeed, the young man did not disappoint. He told the Judge that when he was growing up, he was taught that God created us equal; that God gave each one of us our body and the freewill to do whatever we want with our bodies.“I’ve seen people grow long unkempt bears or pierce their ears or –like many of you in this courtroom –marry or sleep with many women without the law questioning their actions. Today, I stand before you in this court because you (Judge), this court, and this government are telling me that my butt (backsie) which is part of my body does not belong to me; that it belongs to the state, and that the state should decide for me what I should or should not do with it, because the state makes it its business to decide for me who I should or should not sleep with,” he said. “So, can I ever expect a fair hearing or justice in this court?” he asked. “No, I don’t think so,” he stated. “So why waste the court’s time. Go ahead and sentence me,” he told the judge. The judge was speechless; he adjourned the case. End of the joke.
Though told as a joke, it stuck with me all the same, because it carries a powerful message: respect and uphold the fundamental human rights of citizens, irrespective of their race, color, religion or party affiliations; even if it is not politically convenient.
However, we see this happening every day, particularly in this President Koroma’s APC-led government: citizens’ rights are sacrificed for political exigency and expediency. Ditto the Police killings of peaceful protesters, ditto the arbitrary suspension and dismal of public officials, and the denial or lack of basic human services to improve the lot of ordinary Sierra Leoneans. This transgression of Sierra Leone’s right with impunity could explain the government’s lackluster policies, especially those bothering on women’s rights. This is evident in the government’s current feeble and laughable fight to protect young women against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). For all its intent and purposes, politics and tradition trumped medical science in the government’s rudderless and veiled strategy to protect and uphold women’s rights against FGM, because it is not hard to see that it offers women no protect. It is all big talk. How? The government is paying not only a lip service to protect women from female circumcision; thereby, failing to safeguard the health and safety of the most vulnerable women in our society, but also, by omission or commission, promote FGM in the country.
Let me explain. In this muddled strategy, the government refuses to out rightly ban FMG, which, by their own admission is bad for girls and women in the country. At a workshop organized by the Forum Against Harmful Practices (FAHP), the Deputy Minister of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs, Mrs. Rugiatu Neneh Turay Koroma told her audience that the high infant mortality and morbidity rates in this country are linked to FGM. She explained that the government had adopted a strategy which frowns upon outlawing the practice and engages the nation’s Soweys with a view to change their mindset. She claimed that government has set a target to reduce the number of women over 18 years and older who undergo FGM by 20 per cent by the year 2020.
On the face of it, this is huge. The figure is mind-numbing. We are talking about 80 percent of our vulnerable young women, especially those in remote communities, left to the vices and devices of Soweys to cut and cut and cut for the next three years. How many of these young women are going to be statistics in terms of mortality and morbidity rates? Your guess is as good as mine. If you call this a strategy, Madam Minister, this is strategy for you. For those young women who are at the receiving end, it spells disaster.
You call that strategy? No, it is not. And this is what I find troubling with this so-called strategy, Madam. In this strategy, the government relies on the good will of the Soweys and takes their word for a vow. I could imagine the Soweys make their pledge: we, the members of the National Sowey Group, have agreed and promised to uphold the government’s unwritten rule that seeks to restrict female circumcision to women who are 18 years and older. With that pledge, everyone, including President Ernest Koroma and the Minister of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs, is happy with this lousy arrangement that does not have implementation, verification, assessment, continuous monitoring, and enforcement built into it, save for the Sowey random of Understanding (SOU)between the Soweys and the government.
So much for a policy (the Minister of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs calls it a policy) or strategy which does not take into account that we live in a country that is poor at keeping verifiable births and deaths records, that when you hear Sowey, we are talking about old illiterate women to whom a birth certificate is what a diamond necklace is to a pig: useless –how is the Ministry going to ensure that under aged girls (below 18 years) are spared the Sowey’s knife-they are not going to be cut by mistake or by design, or how the Soweys are supposed to know that the female initiate they are about to cut is above the mandatory 18 years of age? This, the strategy does not elaborate. That the President Ernest Koroma and his Ministers are sold on this lousy arrangement makes me wonder. Why the strategy did not require the Soweys to obtain a certificate of approval dully signed by the female initiate, her parents, a registrar of births and deaths and a Paramount Chief as proof of compliance as would terms for a tender that require bidders to provide a Tax Clearance or Certificate as proof of tax compliance, surprises me.
We all know that FGM is prevalent in remote villages where continuous monitoring is the only guarantor against abuse and violation of this open-ended strategy. Frankly, monitoring FGM in remote parts of the country is next to impossible because the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs is among the poorest of the Ministries in this country. Cash-starved and under-staffed, the Ministry lacks the capacity to monitor what is going on in the Bondo bush. In the absence of a legislation to ban the practice, the government has no choice but to take the Soweys by their word. Whether that is sufficient, is anybody’s guess.
Given the secrecy that surrounds what is going on in the Bondo bush, let no one fool you, verification is next to impossible, even in the large cities. With no binding Code of Conduct/Practice or Standard of Procedure (SOP), what would happen to Soweys that violate the Sowey random of Understanding? Are they going to prison or lose their knife or face a life-term ban as would a drug cheat in a game of football? The government strategy that the Deputy Minister of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs says is clear and concise does not say.
So we can see that this strategy that seeks to reduce the number of women who undergo FGM is not going to work for our young and vulnerable women. It is not going to reign in the Soweys; if anything, it provides a perfect cover for the Soweys to continue a practice that the entire world frowns upon and which has been labeled as a gross violation of women’s rights. Since the President is leading the charge of the Soweys to cut women over 18 and older, we now know that there is no protection for our women against FGM. This is sad.