By United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
“I don’t care whether they kill me, or they try to harm me,” said Deborah Parker, whose daughter was initiated in the traditional Sande Society against her will.
The situation that Deborah found herself in was the stuff of a parent’s nightmare: On 28 September 2021, her 15-year-old daughter was walking in the streets of Mount Barclay, a town near the capital Monrovia, with her friend, when a woman connected to the traditional leaders threatened to take the young girls to the Sande Bush, a secret society for women where the initiation includes female genital mutilation (FGM) takes place.
Deborah then became vocal in her efforts to have her kidnapped daughter returned noted that there were other mothers whose daughters had been abducted but they "are unwilling to speak about it."
Traditional people are not supposed to talk about the Sande Bush, or what occurs there, for fear of retaliation from other members. But, Parker, who was herself initiated into Sande when she was a girl, said she did not care. She just wanted to get her daughter.
"But for me, I am a mother and I need justice for those children and my child," she Deborah who herself is a member of the society.
Deborah's campaign was vocal. She showed up at the local police station and government offices. She gave interviews to local radio stations, as well as newspapers. Her message was the same: give me back my daughter.
“I am calling on the Liberian women. We need to stand up to these traditional women [who take our children]. There are a lot of women out there who are victims, of the same cultural practice. I am calling on them to join with me, be with me," Deborah added.
Then, on 10 November, more than six weeks later, Parker was informed that her daughter and 42 other girls had been transferred to another location in town. Parker went to the place where she heard her daughter was being kept, grabbed her, and took her home.
But the damage had been done; she had undergone FGM and had missed weeks of school.
FGM is a human rights issue but cultural societies like Sande (for women) and Poro (for men) have historically provided training for young adults in the absence of formal education structures and in more modern times, they have become places to pass on traditional knowledge.
But a report by the UN Mission in Liberia published in 2015 found that some of these traditional and cultural practices had a significant negative impact on human rights, and run counter to Liberia’s international and regional human rights obligations.
Liberia has signed and ratified several regional and international human rights instruments to ensure that women and girls are protected from all forms of violence and discrimination.
These include the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). In addition, in 2018, then-President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf signed an executive order banning FGM for girls under 18. This order expired in 2019 and until now, no action has been taken.
Uchenna Emelonye, the Country Representative for UN Human Rights in Liberia, said FGM has been a big focus of much of the work of the Office, in particular, rebranding the practice in a human rights context.
“FGM is a human rights issue, it’s a human rights violation,” he said. “And that advocacy is what we are engaging with here in Liberia. I’m not speaking against culture.”
Meanwhile, Maken Tzeggai, Deputy Country Representative for UN Human Rights in Liberia said Deborah’s public demands for her daughter’s return and justice for those forcibly taken is unusual.
Tzeggai added that it is the first time to have a member of Sande society be vocal on the media about traditionalists who forcefully initiate people into the society and continued demand for justice.
“Working with her will further help to sustain the advocacy she began and could change the perception of Sande bush practitioners and the public in general,” Tzeggai said.
It is not just girls who are kidnapped. In October 2021, a male UN staffer was abducted and conscripted into Poro society while traveling home. He was held a week before UN intervention helped him to be released to his family, not before undergoing initiation into the Poro society.
"Kidnapping girls and others off the streets and forcing them to undergo brutal rites like FGM are not part of the culture," Deborah argued.
“I am not speaking against tradition,” She said. “[But this particular] tradition should exist no more because if it were a good one, it wouldn’t cause pain and trauma for the child.”
Indeed, she says that does treat the Sande Bush like a business, rather than instilling tradition. Parents whose children are taken are told they have to pay for their children’s food, and housing while they are in the bush school. And those parents are usually the poorest in the community, who can ill-afford such payments.
In the case of Deborah's daughter and the other children taken, the school was asking for as much as US$45 per child to release them. This is a country where the average income is US$ 900 per year.
“If Sande was good, they would not be asking for money,” Debora said. “The Sande has not good effect on us. It is only to take money away from poor people.”
Free, but the fight for justice continues. The day Deborah freed her daughter, her frustration levels had hit an all-time high.
She had been informed about the location where her daughter and 42 other girls were being held, so she stormed in and grabbed her child.
“If you have a problem with me taking my daughter then take me to court," she shouted.
Deborah is now seeking redress to help provide trauma counseling for her daughter, as well as to recoup some of the money she was forced to give to them.
She is pushing for the woman who took her daughter and other girls to be punished.
“We want justice against [the Sande Bush member], who carried the children into the bush and then turned them over to people who carried out the FGM," Deborah added. "We want a penalty for that woman, as the damage she caused was too great. If she goes free, we will not rest.”
And she continues to speak out. Deborah has told her story to Liberia’s traditional council, the body that oversees cultural and traditional leaders.
According to the council, what happened to Deborah's daughter was not part of the culture.
Deborah has spoken with government officials, both local and national, about the kidnapping and subsequent efforts to free her daughter. She is still speaking out in the press and to NGOs and international organizations, enlisting their help.
And she is calling on the government to end the practice of FGM and wants international help to do so.
“I don’t want this to happen to anyone,” Deborah Parker said. “I call on the government to ban the Sande Bush FGM. But I also call on the international community to help put pressure on my government, because they will not do this alone.”
This story is part of the 16 Days of Activism campaign against gender-based violence. The annual campaign started on 25 November (International Day Against Violence Against Women) and ends on 10th December (International Human Rights Day.