Liberia: FGM Finally Banned in Montserrdo, But…



— Traditional leaders demand continual support for alternative livelihood initiatives as pressure mounts on remaining ten counties to comply 

Traditional women leaders in Montserrado County have officially closed the “bush schools” for girls across the county, bringing an end to the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) which has been in practice for centuries.  The practice of FGM has been in the rural parts of the county for ages, but the traditional leaders have finally decided to abandon the practice — probably for the sake of their daughters, after being convinced of documented evidence of its long-term physical and psychological impacts on the girl child.

The closure of the school comes after the traditional female leaders, locally known as zoes, have since reached an agreement with UN Women and the government to put an end to the practice, but not with a caveat—a sustainable alternative livelihood program (s) in the area.

At the official closure ceremony recently, which coincided with the observance of International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM, the zoes officially closed all Montserrado’s “bush schools. Traditional leaders, government officials and international partners assembled in Sonkai Town, Lower Montserrado, considered the epicenter of the traditional activities in the county, to ban the practice.

The effort, which has begun with a three-year moratorium on the practice of FGM in Montserrado, is expected to also take effect across the remaining ten FGM practicing counties — and eventually see the complete elimination of practice in the country.

Gathered under a traditionally decorated tent at the European Union (EU) Spotlight Initiative heritage center, all stakeholders agreed that it is time to put an end to FGM, even though there can still be initiation without mutilation.

But at the center of every discussion was the issue of providing sustainable alternative livelihood support for the female traditional leaders as a means of transition to life without FGM — which has been their source of livelihood.

Zanzan Karwor, chairman of the National Council of Chiefs and Elders in Liberia (NACCEL), played a pivotal role in ensuring that the zoes were happy about the decision to put an end to what they have loved doing and cherished over the years, even before the coming of democracy.

Karwor was emphatic that the traditional leaders’ acceptance to ban FGM is not based on tokens but a commitment to doing the right thing so as to enable Liberia to gain its rightful place among comity of nations.

He said the respect due traditional leaders must never be tampered with, adding that they are not a people who agree to do something but easily back-track on their decisions. “No one has the authority to bring FGM back; not even those who will come to you telling you to vote for them so they can bring it back,” he told the audience, especially addressing the female zoes.

The NACCEL head called on the UN, EU and all other international partners to see to it that the traditional women leaders have an alternative livelihood in order that they may not have the urge any longer to go back to practice FGM, whether in secret or openly.

“The American people, the UN, our international friends, the help you get for Liberia can come now. We have agreed to ban the FGM. You should do for Liberia what you supposed to do since your say FGM is the problem,” Karwor said.

However, many believe that the female traditional leaders have not accepted that FGM is harmful and that it has long term physical and psychological impacts on victims, and that the zoes’decision to ban the practice is not out of their own convictions but driven by promises from UN Women and other partners to provide them alternative livelihood programs.

Massa Kandakai, head of zoes in Montserrado, told partners at an event last month that her colleagues had agreed to end the practice but were demanding compensations or the provision of other sources for survival.

“The people signed the paper, and they say we should not do any zoe business again, but we are waiting. We are waiting to see what they will do for us,” she told her fellow zoes after a meeting with UN Women and other partners.

However, at the heart of UN Women and other partners’ alternative livelihood programs for the zoes are heritage centers where they are taught new trades and skills in business management. The partners believe that the heritage centers will help attract the needed development and empowerment after the women have acquired skills.

UN Women’s “Spotlight Initiative”, in collaboration with the government and funding from the European Union and United Nations, has constructed four vocational and heritage centers in four of Liberia’s eleven FGM practicing counties, Montserrado, Bong, Nimba and Grand Cape Mount.

Jaha Dukureh, UN Women Goodwill Ambassador, at the official banning ceremony, expressed excitement that Liberia is emulating the good examples of Kenya that has banned FGM through the Legislation of a Law accompanied by penalties.

Liberia is yet to have a law enacted and made ready for public enforcement but there have been Executive Orders temporarily banning FGM. Executive Orders, as provided for by the Liberian Constitution do not last for more than one year at a time and, as such, there has been no stringent measure to deter the practice of FGM.

“We are not here to talk about suspension of FGM in Liberia but its ban. It is amazing how far we have come. To the zoes, my mothers, we could not have been here today without your cooperation and willingness to see a new transformation come to Liberia,” Dukureh said.

“My commitment then and now is to work with the government of Liberia, the CSOs, the zoes and all organizations to ensure we end FGM in this country. We know that it won’t happen overnight, but we can work together with everybody.”

Like Kawor, Dukureh, said women must be empowered in order to reveal their full potentials away from the practice of FGM.

“We must invest in women in this community because when we do not hand money into the hands of women, we will end up going back to zero. We can give them money by empowering them. Until we are willing to uplift our women out of poverty, we will not see an end to violence against girls and women,” she said.

Judy Gitau, Regional Coordinator for Equality Now-Africa, said she was glad to be a part of a process that led to ending FGM and violence against girls and women.

“It is a great pleasure to join you here today to celebrate the Day of Zero Tolerance on Female Genital Mutilation,” Gitau told the audience. “Today is auspicious that all partners against FGM have gathered here to celebrate efforts to end FGM. This is the first time we have government organizations, traditional leaders and civil society organizations coming together like this. This is tremendous progress.”

She described Liberia as a country with such wealth and potential, but the country cannot move forward in its development drive without women actively involved and that their human rights must be protected and respected.

She reflected that Liberia has ratified international protocols on human rights, something her organization is glad that efforts to end FGM, a practice that robs women of their human rights, is coming to an end in the country.

“We are glad that Chief Zanzan Kawor and all other people in partnership have agreed that FGM is banned here in Montserrado and across Liberia. We hope that all the eleven practicing counties in Liberia have an understanding of what is ongoing and accept to put an end to FGM,” Gitau noted, while making reference a campaign led by former Kenyan President, Uhuru Kenyatta that resulted into the legislation that bans FGM in Kenya, hoping that same happens here.

“Kenya is being progressive. We have FGM in Kenya. We have an FGM Law. FGM prevalence rate has dropped. We have like fifteen percent. Our former President assured us that by 2022, FGM was going to be completely out of practice,” Gitau the native Kenyan said. “No matter how many other efforts are put into ending FGM, they will not yield the longstanding impact political will does.”

Comfort Lamptey, UN Women Country Representative, described FGM as one of the most vicious manifestations of the patriarchy that permeates the world. She added that the practice serves as an abhorrent violation of fundamental human rights that causes lifelong damage to the physical and mental health of women and girls.

According to Lamptey, the act is rooted in the same gender inequalities and complex social norms that limit women’s participation and leadership and restrict their access to education and employment across the world.

“On the International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation, let’s commit to social change and strong partnerships to put to an end female genital mutilation once and for all,” Lamptey asserted.

She called on everyone to collaborate as powerful allies in challenging and ending the scourge.

According to The UN Women, about 200 million women and girls across the world have suffered the impact of FGM.