“A delay mechanism”: Liberian women question three-year ban on FGM
In February, the Traditional Council of Liberia, announced a three-year suspension of the practice of Female Genital Mutilation in Liberia but some women are concerned about the limits of temporary ban.
Image description: An illustration showing a red sign that reads “BANNED” in capital letters next to a hut painted white and with a grey roof. The background is green.
Monrovia, Liberia (Minority Africa) — In 1990, 17-year-old Kuo* was living with her aunt in western Liberia when was sent to the Sande bush schools to be cut.
“My aunt said she was taking me to school, I didn’t know it was the bush school where I would go through a painful experience,” she says. “It was like I fell in an ambush, it was painful.”
Until a recent suspension, these schools, originating from the Mande-speaking peoples, were still operational.
The secluded bush schools are organised by the Sande society, a secret women’s initiation society in Liberia and other African countries such as Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire, and Guinea. Girls are kept in these schools for a period, which in some cases could be up to a year.
The girls are taught lessons aimed at preparing them for marriage and womanhood. Female genital mutilation (FGM) is then performed as a rite of passage into womanhood with the cutting itself carried out by the leaders of the Sande societies called Zoes.
“When I came out of the bush school and saw my friends still in school, I would bend my head to hide my face,” Kuo says. “It really hurt me; I don’t want any of my children and relatives to be part of it.”
In late February, Chief Zanzan Karwor, chairman of the National Traditional Council of Liberia, announced a three-year suspension of the practice of female genital mutilation in Liberia.
The three-year ban began with immediate effect and comes amidst campaigns by human rights groups for a total ban of the practice.
According to 2020 United Nations data, 44 percent of Liberian girls and women aged 15-49 years have undergone female genital mutilation, which usually consists of the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia.
In Liberia, the practice is usually done with crude tools and no anaesthetic , and could lead to death, health problems or psychological trauma. It is an encounter Kuo describes as “an evil and painful experience where pain doesn’t end.”
Lakshmi Moore, a Liberian feminist believes the short-term bans do not address or respond holistically to the issues relating to what causes FGM and its effects on girls and women.
“It’s a delay mechanism which means that initiation is merely deferred and in some areas, acts can continue without strong and clear actions to ensure it’s eliminated like enforcement procedures,” Moore says.
“It means even more harm whenever girls who for instance have advanced in school get recalled back to undergo initiation, so it’s [not] progress,” she adds.
Nelly Cooper, the Director of West Point Women for Health & Development Organisation (WPDHDO) calls into question the long-term efficacy of a three-year ban.
“If implemented properly the ban should stop the practice of FGM for the three years. However there is a need for a permanent ban afterwards,” she says.
This ban comes after two previous short-term bans in the country with 2020 United States Human Rights reports on Liberia stating that several human rights organizations reported bush school activities and FGM continued during the period of the previous bans, bolstering concerns as to the effectiveness of the implementation of the ban.
“While the suspension is welcome, it is not as enforceable because it can’t stop the practice totally during this period,” says Mackins Pajibo, a Program Officer at Women Solidarity Incorporated. “We still have records and complaints of it still being carried out in some areas.”
Liberia is one of three countries in West Africa with no laws expressly criminalising FGM. In absence of such laws, current laws on kidnapping, felonious restraint, and endangering lives have been used to try cases.
“While Liberia has attempted to prosecute forced FGM and death resulting from the practice with its existing laws, the biggest barrier is the lack of witness protection for victims and witnesses,” notes Asenath Mwithigah, the Global Lead on Equality Now’s End Harmful Practices program.
In 2015, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – Liberia and Africa’s first female president – publicly spoke against the practice. However, it wasn’t until 2018, on her last day in office that she signed an executive orderthat banned the practice.
In 2016, the Liberian legislature removed a provision in a domestic violence bill that sought to criminalize the practice, stating that FGM was a cultural matter. As a result, presidents seeking to ban the practice have been forced to issue executive orders, which are only valid for a year in Liberia.
Current president George Weah also issued an executive order in 2019 that banned the practice for a year. This ban was effected with a declarationfrom traditional leaders to suspend FGM. Weah’s ban on FGM ended in June 2020, and the current ban is set to run for three years.
The reluctance of the legislature in criminalising or permanently banning the practice is tied to the political power and influence of these traditional societies, according to Gloria Yancy, the Program Coordinator at ActionAid Liberia.
“The government has not banned FGM because it is deeply rooted into the tradition of which lawmakers who are predominantly male are a part of,” she says, adding that the practice is also deeply tied to politics in Liberia.
“Most politicians use [the] support of practitioners of FGM as a means of getting more votes from electorates during elections, thereby encouraging and promoting the practice.”
The extent of the power of traditional societies is re-echoed by Mwithigah. “The Zoes are so powerful that membership is necessary for social, economic, or political influence in villages in around two-thirds of the country,” she says.
“Non-members can be kidnapped and forced to undergo FGM for discussing Sande issues, breaking Sande law, or passing close to the Sande bush schools.”
The prevalence of FGM is equally tied to the fact that it is supported by and forms part of the traditional Poro (male) and Sande (female) societies.
And within these societies, not everyone is pleased with even a three-year ban. Some traditional chiefs have argued against it saying that their livelihoods are tied to the operation of these traditional schools as women and girls who go to the Sande bush schools pay to attend.
Yet for women like Kuo, these choices have consequences.
“I regret going to the bush school, and I have seen no benefits from FGM. At a certain age, my sexual desires just went away from me,” she says.
In a 2021 interview, the gender minister stated that the government was implementing a pilot project to provide new skills, training and resources to traditional priests that operate the bush schools so that they can make a living after leaving the practice.
The project includes the building of vocational and heritage centres that teach new skills to Zoes, including climate-smart agriculture, business development, literacy, catering, and soapmaking, amongst others.
In recent years there has been a move to better regulate bush schools. The government and traditional council currently issue licences to Zoes to allow them to organise bush schools.
For many women, girls and anti-FGM campaigners, the recent ban is a good step in the right direction. However, many like Kuo continue to support and hope for a permanent ban.
“This three-year ban has not happened before. God will do something; maybe the time will come and they will ban for five or six years and hopefully one day it will finally be banned totally,” Kuo states.
Lakshmi Moore believes a permanent ban should incorporate the government addressing issues relating to prevention and having in place clear and strong policies to ensure closures.
“Some of this should include improving access to quality education and sexual & reproductive health and rights for girls in those counties; redirecting economic livelihood support to practitioners who rely on this for their livelihood – also helps to prevent them doing it illegally,” she says. “Social protection mechanisms for rural communities and more engagement and awareness with communities to support girls.”
While she awaits a total ban, Kuo, who is now a mother of two girls, has decided that none of her children will go to the bush school.
“When my daughter got older, family members asked me when I would send her to the bush school. I told them I wouldn’t send my child to a bush school,” she says. “I am using all my money to send my children to school. I told my daughters not to ever go; it’s just pain with no benefits.”
*Kuo’s name has been changed to protect her identity.
Edited by Caleb Okereke and Uzoma Ihejirika.