Liberia: 3-Year Ban on Sande Society in Montserrado



— Other counties to follow as efforts mount to end female genital mutilation in Liberia

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), one of the most contentious issues in Africa, especially in Liberia, continues to face threats of extinction, with the latest being the placing of a moratorium (suspension) on the entire Sande Society's activities for a period of three (3) years in Montserrado County.

The latest decision was made public on  January 20, when representatives of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Ministry of Gender, Children, and Social Protection, the National Traditional Council of Chiefs and Elders, Zoes, the UN Women, and several other civil society organizations gathered in Songai Town, Todee District, Montserrado County. 

UN Women and the European Union, as well as many other international and local civil society organizations, have pleaded with the Liberian government over the years to work with the National Council of Chiefs and Elders to put an end to FGM. 

It has been and continues to be an uphill battle, but, with Liberia being a signatory to many international protocols and conventions on human rights and gender equality, there is sustained pressure to abolish the practice of FGM, which has been declared harmful to those who undergo it.

The government of Liberia has domesticated so many international and regional frameworks, policies, and laws that protect and promote women and girls’ human rights; the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women, the 2003 Protocol to the African Charter on the Rights of Women in Africa, (Maputo Protocol) and the Pro-poor Agenda for Prosperity and Development’s Pillar One which contains “Power to the people.”

Power to the people highlights gender equity as a strategy to eliminate Sexual Gender Based Violence (SGBV) and other social inequalities of women and girls in particular. The only concern that remains is the political will to ensure that women and girls benefit from equal rights and opportunities as their male counterparts.

The moratorium, according to UN Women's Deputy Resident Representative, Yemi Falayajo, is welcome, but the UN hopes that FGM is totally banned from Liberia.

Falayaoi who spoke on behalf of the UN Women country representative, Comfort Lamptey, said UN Women looks forward to seeing that FGM is banned in all eleven FGM-practicing counties in Liberia.

Falayajo noted that Montserrado is the first county to accept not only banning FGM for three years but also putting a temporary halt on all Sande Society activities during the same period.

“[We] commend the traditional leaders’ efforts and progress so far in banning FGM, including the three-year moratorium signed in February 2022, to ensure that appropriate actions are taken to end the practice of FGM,” Falayajo added.

She disclosed that UN Women would soon begin the implementation of small-scale livelihood projects in Liberia in order to support agriculture, village savings and loans, and small business initiatives undertaken by all women involved in the execution of FGM in the country.

The issue of FGM, s heavily entrenched in Liberian culture, dating back many centuries. Strong taboos surrounding the practice and associated Sande secret societies make tackling the practice challenging. 

Liberia remains one of the three West African countries that do not have a law criminalizing FGM despite having signed and ratified regional and international human rights instruments condemning the practice as a human rights violation, including the Maputo Protocol. 

Half of the Liberian women have been subjected to FGM, and four in 10 support the practice in a country where it is carried out by all but a few tribes, and by both Muslim and Christian communities, according to the U.N. children’s agency (UNICEF).

Other than the temporary ban in the past, many efforts to make FGM illegal in Liberia have not been successful. In fact, the few cases that have gone through the justice system have been covered under Section 242 of the Penal Code, which speaks to malicious and unlawful injuries towards another person by cutting off or otherwise depriving him or her of any of the members of his body, finding a person guilty of a felony. This is punishable by up to five years in prison.

In July 2011, the members of the politically influential Sande secret society who had kidnapped and forcibly subjected Ruth to FGM were sentenced to three years' imprisonment. However, they appealed the judgment and were released on bail. The appeal has been pending at the Supreme Court with no hearing date set, and the perpetrators remain free.

In March 2017, 16-year-old Zaye Doe died in the Tappita area in the Sande bush during forced mutilation. The traditional leaders (Zoes) subjected Zaye and 25 more girls to FGM despite the government's ban on Sande Secret Society operations, including FGM.

Williametta Saydee Tarr, Minister of Gender, Children, and Social Protection, noted that Chief  Zanzan Kawor, the head of the National Traditional Council of Chiefs and Elders, has been instrumental in working with her office to seek the support of all traditional leaders to ensure that FGM is brought to an end for the wellbeing of girls and women who are directly affected.

“When we want to move forward and be like other countries that are doing well, there are certain things we have to agree to. We have had lots of international conferences on this issue. Thanks to civil society actors, we started in 2018,” Tarr said.

She highlighted sexual gender-based violence (SGBV) and FGM as two major issues that require more concerted efforts if they should be eliminated and that a safe environment for all females is guaranteed.

“Our cultural and traditional practices remain in place. We are only doing away with the harmful parts. My appeal to all of us is that we should not disobey this agreement. We should do the right thing. Our own job is to take care of children, women, and vulnerable people,” she told the gathering.

Karwor meanwhile, promised to see to it that traditional female leaders in Montserrado abide by the agreement until the right mechanisms are put in place for their wellbeing and safety. 

“Sande Bush is a place to train our girl children to respect their father and mother. This is the place our daughters come from and possess so much respect for the elders. It is sad that students in modern schools don’t respect tradition and culture,” Karwor said.

He warned that violators of the three-year moratorium on FGM will be penalized in keeping with the policy document signed by traditional leaders from across the 15 political subdivisions of Liberia.

The policy document was signed in Gbarnga, Bong County, on February 4, 2022.

Whether the Sande Society leaders will abide by the moratorium or not, it was observed that many of them were not happy with the decision.

Additionally, Judy Gitau, Equality Now’s Regional Coordinator for Africa, expressed gratitude that Liberia is making progress in the fight against FGM.

“This is a welcome step. Civil society organizations have continuously raised concerns about the harmful effects of female genital mutilation. FGM causes girls and women life-long physical and psychological trauma, including depression,” Gitau said.

She continued that FGM is a human rights violation and is deeply entrenched in Liberian culture and many other parts of Africa, but the move by traditional leaders and the government to abandon FGM is laudable.

“Equality Now” is an international non-governmental organization founded in 1992 to advocate for the protection and promotion of the human rights of women and girls.