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Girls & Women

Africa’s First Female President Bans FGM on Her Last Day in Office

After 12 years in office, Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is stepping down. But even on her last day Sirleaf was hard at work, fighting for women’s rights.

Sirleaf, the first elected female president in Africa, signed an executive order outlawing female genital mutilation (FGM) on Friday — a long-awaited win for women in the West African country.

Activists have called for a ban on FGM in Liberia for years and while the government came close to abolishing the practice in 2017 as part of a new law against domestic violence, the legislation was ultimately passed without the FGM clause to the dismay of women’s rights advocates, Reuters reported.

Take Action: Tell World Leaders to Redouble Their Efforts By Amending Laws to Prevent Sexual Violence

Sirleaf had said that the omission of the FGM ban from the initial domestic violence law “[undermined] the very essence of the law and [left] it incomplete,” according to an official statement.

Nearly half of Liberia’s women and girls have been subjected to FGM, a cultural practice in which a female’s external genitalia are partially or totally removed or altered for non-medical reasons, according to UNICEF. And women and girls from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are disproportionately affected, UNICEF reported.

Read more: 12 Myths About Female Genital Mutilation Debunked

Sirleaf’s executive order makes Mali the only West African country that has yet to abolish FGM. But around the world, more than 200 million women and girls have undergone FGM, most of them before the age of 15, according to the World Health Organization.

For many years, Sirleaf — who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her efforts to advance women’s rights and establish peace in Liberia — attempted to abolish the harmful practice and publicly committed to banning FGM by the end of her term before the United Nations General Assembly in 2015.

And while she has delivered on that promise, there is still work to be done.

“We applaud the move by former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, her signing of the Executive Order on the Domestic Violence Bill will play an important part in achieving a universal ban on FGM in Liberia; however, it is too early to celebrate," Program Manager Flavia Mwangovya of Equality Now told Global Citizen. "The provisions in the Bill on FGM regarding the age of consent create a legal loophole that protects girls under the age of 18, but fails to protect women and girls above 18 from the harmful practice."

Still, Sirleaf's order represents a hard-won battle that lays the groundwork for stronger legislation in the future.

Global Citizen campaigns to protect girls and women from all forms of gender-based violence. You can take action here to help advance gender equality worldwide.