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Human Rights

'Laws are just pieces of paper' if not enforced, says Guinean rights activist

Many West African women have experienced physical violence in their lives. Guinean women's rights activist Binta Ann says laws are not enough - governments need to follow through to help protect women.

Binta Ann studied in France and the United States before returning to Guinea. Her foundation FONBALE offers educational programs for children from poor neighborhoods. She is also a leading campaigner in the fight against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), forced marriages and sexual abuse of women and girls. In 2016 she received the "German French Human Rights Award Guinea".

DW: Why did you decide to fight for the rights of women and girls rather than staying in the US?

Binta Ann: I am a woman and I am part of this culture. When I was young, they wanted to force me to marry a cousin. So I know what I am talking about. My cousins are victims of forced marriages.

There is a lot of violence against women in my country, female genital mutilation, forced marriages, early marriages. There are many issues to fight.

So I decided not to continue my fight from the US, but to return to Conakry. I am now back in Conakry where I have my center. I am taking care of more than 200 children and give them free classes.

What message are you trying to give when you talk to women and girls?

I tell them to believe in themselves. Our fight is not easy. When we try to convince women and girls that they have rights, they keep telling us about tradition. It is not easy to help them if they are not willing to accept our help.

We try to convince them first that they should accept our help, we tell them that that their voices matter. Than we are trying to convince the community to tell them that forced marriages are banned by law and that FGM and violence against women are banned by law. But unfortunately the law is not being followed.

Donors have for a long time pushed African governments to pass stricter laws to end violence against women and also invested in capacity building, such as trainings for police officers or social workers. Is that the right strategy to end violence against women? 

I believe that education can help. We need not just train police officers, but we really need to educate health workers in the fight against FGM.

FGM is often practiced in hospitals. We need to educate doctors, nurses and midwives so that they can help us in our campaign against FGM. Besides that, we need to continue the education of religious groups, who are not allowing us to talk to some groups of women about these issues. The donors should continue their pressure on governments. 'If we give you money, you should not just say there is a law, but also apply it.' I am in favor of education, but also in favor of laws.

A woman is holding a knife used to for FGM in Ethiopia (picture alliance/dpa/EPA/UNICEF/HOLT)

97 percent of women and girls over 15 years in Guinea have had FGM performed on them

Certain traditions also seem to be responsible for violence against women... Many men seem to think that it is acceptable. How is it possible to change such traditions that harm women? 

It is through sensitization. We show men some images of women who are dead or who have been wounded. We come to their neighborhoods, we talk about it, we try to advise them. We also talk about the law. It is not normal to harm a woman, but for some of them, it is a normal thing they do every single day because of certain traditions.

We are not against all our African traditions. We are against all traditions that can harm a human being. But we also have many good traditions, such as hospitality. That is an African tradition that we like very much.

We are also not fighting against polygamy, although it is against the law. We are fighting against issues such as FGM, because it is extremely harmful for the health of women and girls.

Are the governments in the region doing enough to fight violence against women, early marriages and FGM?

Watch video 01:41

Fighting female genital mutilation

The governments are saying that there are laws.

But it is not just about writing texts and then saying 'This is a law.'

If you just write a text and you do not act, it is just a piece of paper. The laws are just pieces of paper at the moment.

Child marriages are continuing, FGM is continuing. Children are being raped, impunity is alive, that is a big problem.

What are the major constraints you are facing in your work?

It is not always easy for the community to understand why we are doing the work. We are part of the community and we are doing this work to help our brothers and sisters. They should know that we are not against our traditions.

The other obstacle is: I am self-funded and running my foundation with the salary that I get as a teacher. It is not always easy, but I am hanging in there. Maybe I will find support one day, but I right now I am happy that I can help some 200 children that come for free classes.

Interview: Daniel Pelz  

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