The Minister Social Welfare, Gender and Children's Affairs,Dr.Sylvia Olayinka Blyden has just returned from the 2017 edition of the annual ECOWAS First Ladies Conference, which ended in Niamey, Niger on 5th October, this year.
Sierra Leone First Lady, Mrs. Sia Nyama Koroma had requested Honourable Cabinet Minister, Dr. Sylvia Olayinka Blyden to represent her since she could not attend. The meeting ended on a high note wherein Sierra Leone, through the astute presentation of the minister, successfully convinced the high profile and very important meeting to amend the proposed Final Declaration so as to reflect Lessons Learnt in protecting Sierra Leone Girls from female circumcision (aka FGM).
Hon. Blyden made a successful and well-received call for the efforts to combat FGM on girls to be made separate from how to manage FGM that is voluntarily done by matured, adult women. In other words, Blyden defended the rights of adult women of the Bondo and Sande secret societies to do what they wanted with their bodies whilst fiercely protecting girls from being subjected to any FGM and adult women from being forced to undergo FGM against their will.
It was a very big meeting with key importance that drew a very high level representation from ECOWAS and the African Union including the presence of the Chairman of ECOWAS Conference of Heads of State and Government,H.E. President Faure Essozimna Gnassingbe, the President of Togo. Also gracing the event was H.E. President Mahamadou Issoufou, President of Niger; as did H.E. Marcel Alain de Souza the president of ECOWAS Commission. The Speaker and Deputy Speaker of ECOWAS Parliament with a large number of ECOWAS parliamentarians also flew in to attend. ECOWAS Commissioner of Social Affairs and Gender Dr. Fatimata Dia Sowe and her team provided technical assistance.
It was in the midst of this galaxy of distinguished persons that the Sierra Leone mantra of Respect the Women and Protect the Girls was marketed, positioned and accepted for possible replication by ECOWAS Member States.
After a passionate presentation of the representative of H.E. First Lady Sia Koroma, the meeting decided to amend the Final Communique so that the focus was no longer a call for a blanket ban on female circumcision but for a ban on circumcision of girls and forced circumcision of adult women. The importance of allowing adult African women to not feel disrespected by strategies to combat FGM was well understood by the gathering and this led to the ECOWAS Commission President requesting for Sierra Leone to prepare a formal report on 'Respect the Women and Protect the Girls' so that ECOWAS could share it amongst Member States.
Indeed, this simple but very effective strategy has seen Sierra Leone experience a massive drop in the number of girls being subjected to female circumcision over the past 18 months as compared to ever before during normal times. The Bondo Society is a secret society during which initiates undergo female circumcision. Prior to now, it used to be such that girls under the age of 18 years were initiated and adult women were also forcibly initiated.
The 'Respect the Women and Protect the Girls' strategy has for the first time in this country, seen Bondo society activities largely carried out without girls being initiated and without adult women being forced into joining. The strategy has been a huge success and has seen the 2017 Summer Vacation go by without a single case of FGM being reported around the entire country. Prior to now in Sierra Leone, during vacations are when large numbers of girls are taken to be initiated.
Promulgated by H.E. President Koroma of Sierra Leone's Government and which Cabinet Minister Hon. Dr. Sylvia Olayinka Blyden had successfully marketed in many places including over the United Nations powerful global media in June this year, the Strategy basically recognises the right of matured, adult women to do what they want with their bodies whilst fiercely protecting girls 18 years and below, from being circumcised. It successfully takes away the resentment which already-circumcised women feel when they are described as "mutilated" and/or "victims" of a procedure in which they take immense pride.
At the same time women are being respected, girls are being educated to know they have a right to decline when they reach the 18 years age of consent. Through the assistance of non-governmental organisations, girls are being educated to be able to stand up and decline being circumcised without any fear. Girls in Sierra Leone now know the government does not turn a blind eye when any girl is at risk of being initiated or when any woman is at risk of being forcibly circumcised. The girls know they are now safe to say NO! At the same time, the adult women know they are not being insulted and disrespected.
The Sierra Leone Strategy also brings on board the leaders of the female Bondo secret societies who perform female circumcision on their initiates. The Bondo leaders are engaged through a long running process that commenced in 2010 with the help of the United Nations and which has been sustained to date. The leaders signed up to an MOU promising to avoid any forced or under-aged initiation. Upon being convinced on the values of the Strategy to protect girls, the female leaders of the Bondo Society, assured H.E. President Koroma that they will cooperate with his Government in punishing any woman found circumcising a girl under 18 years. Furthermore, self-policing amongst these female leaders has led to whistle blowing that have swiftly seen the Government move in and stop potential cases of under-aged initiations before they happen. The Bondo Society women have lived up to their promises and girls who used to be at risk of being circumcised, are now being more and more empowered to know they are protected from such.
One of the dangerous side effects of performing FGM on children is the risk of them developing Obstetric Fistula. Hon. Dr. Sylvia Olayinka Blyden, Sierra Leone's Cabinet Minister of Social Welfare, Gender and Children's Affairs who represented First Lady Sia Koroma at the Conference, is a trained medical doctor who says there is a distinct correlation between Obstetric Fistula and Child Pregnancy.
WHAT IS OBSTETRIC FISTULA?
Obstetric Fistula can result from child marriage and subsequent child pregnancy when the pelvis is not yet well developed to easily pass a baby through the vaginal birth canal. This results in prolonged labour with the baby pressing hard on the walls of vagina. This long stay of the baby in the birth canal, stems the blood supply to pressure point and that part of the vaginal wall dies producing a hole or holes along the walls of the vagina. It is through such holes which urine and/or faeces may pass and be leaking through the vagina. This disease, which leaves women with a bad smell, is known as Obstetric Fistula.
The correlation between Child Marriage, Child Sexual Abuse, subsequent Child Pregnancy and resultant Obstetric Fistula is therefore well known.
Female Circumcision during Rites of Passage, is a prelude to a female getting ready for marriage, sexual activity and pregnancy. Therefore, circumcising a girl whose pelvis is not mature to deliver a baby means you are sentencing such a girl to having a potential child pregnancy as she will be deemed to be ready for marriage. The correlation between Child Female Circumcision and Obstetric Fistula is quite clear. This is one of the reasons why the Government of Sierra Leone is so passionate to protect girls from being circumcised.
Hon. Minister Dr. Blyden however challenges that there is no known scientific link between Adult onset circumcision and Obstetric fistula. No respected scientific study has ever produced a finding. This makes the case for respecting Adult Women to choose to be circumcised. It is a fact that in America, women above the age of 18 years who choose to be circumcised, are free to do so. The Law which criminalises female circumcision in America, makes it criminal only when it is done on persons below the age of 18 years. In America, any woman above the age of 18 years can ask for FGM to be done on her and it is perfectly legal.
Hon. Blyden readily agrees that there are other known negative effects of female circumcision such as Septic Infection, Profuse Bleeding sometimes leading to death, HIV and other infection from sharing blades; but she says they cannot be used as a basis to ban adult women who willingly seek to be circumcised. Rather, she says the strategy first used over half a century ago by Sir Milton Margai, to teach adult women better and safer medical methods of circumcision is what should be applied alongside a complete ban on under-aged girls being circumcised and a ban on forcing adult women. Margai was a medical doctor who went on to become the first Prime Minister of Sierra Leone.
Hon. Dr. Blyden is very passionate about the rights of adult women to be allowed to do what they want with their bodies. She did not mince her words during the Niamey Conference.
Hear her words that convinced the gathering:
"According to H.E. de Souza, the Head of the ECOWAS Commission, West African nations and other countries around the world, have been striving to end FGM for over 25 years now but without any significant success. I do agree with him and I want to assert today that if West Africa does not come and learn from Sierra Leone's strategy to respect women and protect the girls, come another 25 years from now, the problem will persist. So come to Sierra Leone and learn how we have been able to go for virtually the past 12 months without a single girl being initiated anywhere in our country. Come and learn how to respect women and protect girls. We also invite our Partners who wish to think outside the box to also come and learn how to protect girls," was how Honourable Blyden ended her presentation calling for an amendment of the Final Declaration.
As she eloquently completed her submission, the entire hall went silent; so silent that a pin dropping could have been heard. Then suddenly, one First Lady started clapping and then another and another until everyone in the hall was applauding the message from Sierra Leone.
At this point, the ECOWAS Commission President put it to a Vote as to whether the Final Declaration was to be amended to cover only Girls and Enforced FGM as requested by Sierra Leone. Every one of the First Ladies present endorsed the call from Sierra Leone and so the entire Declaration was amended to now read it to be a call for a Ban on FGM amongst Girls and banning Involuntary FGM on adult women.
The ECOWAS President said to Minister Blyden: "All the First Ladies in here, have now agreed to amend the Final Declaration as proposed by Sierra Leone based on the argument which Sierra Leone has eloquently explained. It is clear that Sierra Leone is doing something correctly that is making Sierra Leone girls to be protected from FGM so we now need Sierra Leone to help other Member States to replicate your strategy." He then directed for ECOWAS Gender Commissioner to work with Sierra Leone to compile a Report on the Strategy so it could be re-shared amongst Member States for them to replicate it.
Speaking to media reporters afterwards in Niamey, the Sierra Leone Minister said that she felt proud that her country's strategy is gaining more and more wings.
"Sierra Leone is very confident that our country's strategy will eventually become the definitive Best Practice for handling female circumcision aka FGM in West Africa," Minister Sylvia Blyden beamed with pride as she responded to questions.
Meanwhile, the First Ladies and Gender Ministers of ECOWAS are all slated to meet again in Ivory Coast this coming weekend to further discuss other child protection mechanisms and to make yet another specific declaration on Child Protection Systems for West Africa. First Lady Sia Koroma is expected to attend that meeting this weekend and from there, her delegation will be heading to Dakar, Senegal for another Regional Meeting on Child Protection that she will be co-hosting.
We can end this feature by saying the fact that strongly focusing undiluted attention on protecting Girls of Sierra Leone continues to be the pivot and mainstay of the efforts by Sierra Leone in combating negative effects of female circumcision aka FGM. Insulting adult women that they are mutilated victims has been proven to be counter-productive to getting the much needed buy-in from the majority of women whose support is critical to our vision of protecting Girls.
The mantra of 'Respect the Women and Protect the Girls' remains a continuing success story in Sierra Leone and it is hoped the rest of West Africa can indeed replicate it.