By Kieran Guilbert
LONDON, July 7 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Sierra Leone’s decision to back an international treaty on the rights of women in Africa could lead to a new law banning female genital mutilation (FGM) in a country where the practice is rife, campaigners said on Tuesday.
The Ebola-hit country last week became one of the last West African nations to ratify the Maputo Protocol, which addresses a range of issues including FGM, violence against women, child and forced marriage, and women’s economic empowerment.
The treaty, which was first adopted by Mozambique in July 2003 and has been ratified by 37 African states to date, should compel Sierra Leone to introduce a law banning FGM nationwide, according to rights group Equality Now.
Sierra Leone, along with West African neighbors Liberia and Mali, are among a handful of FGM-affected countries in the continent which have not yet banned the practice.
Campaigners say FGM is particularly difficult to eliminate in Sierra Leone because of the influence of secret women’s societies which back the practice and wield significant political clout.
“This (ratification) is important because it demonstrates a political commitment to protect the rights of girls and women in Sierra Leone, and provides a legal framework for them to access justice,” said Equality Now program officer Kavinya Makau.
“It is a critical first step towards making FGM illegal,” Makau told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Nairobi.
FGM involves the partial or total removal of the external genitalia and is seen by many families as a gateway to marriage and a way of preserving a girl’s purity, with uncut girls ostracized in many communities.
It affects an estimated 140 million girls and women across a swathe of Africa and parts of the Middle East and Asi