Harmful cultural practices such as female genital mutilation are hampering efforts to reduce poverty in Sierra Leone, which has the world’s worst child and maternal mortality rates, a top U.N. official said.
Discrimination against women is also partly responsible for the social problems that have persisted since the 1991-2002 civil war, said Ann Veneman, executive director of child agency UNICEF, after a three-day visit to rural clinics and schools.
“Sierra Leone needs to change a number of the harmful traditional and cultural practices,” Veneman told reporters late on Friday, citing female genital mutilation (FGM), child marriage and pregnancy, and under-age labour.
According to the United Nations, more than a quarter of children die before their fifth birthday in the former British colony, and one in eight women die in childbirth.
Seventy percent of the population live below the poverty line and fewer than 30 percent are literate.
Veneman criticised the high rates of sexual violence that have continued since the war when thousands of women were raped, kept as sex slaves and forced into marriage by rebels.
“A tremendous amount of sexual violence still goes on in this country,” Veneman told Reuters after the news conference. “It has to be unacceptable in this society to allow sexual violence against women and children to continue.”
Ignorance due to a tradition of not sending girls to school was contributing to problems such as feeding newborns with dirty water and rice milk instead of breast milk, which boosts the immune system, and the failure to use bednets against malaria.
“Poverty is the big problem,” Veneman said. “But the young girls have a double problem: they are highly discriminated against and there is a total disregard for women and girls.”
She also said girls were prey to secret societies — closed traditional groups solely for women, that meet in the bush.
“They have secret societies where you learn how to be a woman and how to take care of a man and this is where you get your FGM,” she said.
“These women who do this are running a business and have an economic interest in doing it. But it is a harmful practice: it can cause infection, bleeding and HIV/Aids.”
UNICEF estimates 90-94 percent of women in Sierra Leone are cut and Veneman says attitudes are not changing quickly enough.
“There are still young people out there who have suffered in such terrible ways,” said Veneman. “It’s a special burden.”
Source: Reuters – 1 March 2008