Liberia: In Nimba, Traditional Leaders Ban FGM

Female genital mutilation has been banned in Nimba County for the next three years. Any violation of this mandate could come with a penalty of US$300.

The measure, which is being undertaken by Nimba's traditional leaders, whose significant influences on cultural practices within the 17 administrative districts of the county, comes in the form of a binding moratorium, banning the practice for three years, irrespective of cultural reasons. 

Nimba, Liberia's second largest county is a hotspot for FGM, an ancient ritual that is practiced in Liberia during traditional initiation ceremonies in bush schools, overseen by an immensely powerful traditional women’s secret society called the Sande. The women who operate the schools are called Zoes (female traditional leaders). 

The moratorium, according to the traditional leaders, is critical in shifting the deep-rooted cultural beliefs that justify the perpetuation of the practice, which the World Health Organization (WHO) recognized internationally as a violation of human rights. 

“As traditional leaders, we here sign this moratorium to effectively ban the practice of FGM in Nimba for the next three years. We ask that sufficient and timely sharing of the contents of the moratorium be made so that we, as traditional leaders, can enforce compliance,” the traditional leaders' said in their moratorium. 

“And we pledge our support to monitor and enforce this ban while calling for more awareness and training about the moratorium among traditional leaders. This moratorium would not affect the running of Sande school but FGM. The moratorium will be expanded on the theme, 'Continue Sande and Stop the mutilation'.”

The moratorium then warns that anyone caught in the practice will pay a fine of US$300, which will be paid to revenue. 

“The penalty for any violator is US$300 and we will ensure the fine is paid without any delay, or you face a jail sentence,” 

It however called on the cultural authority in Nimba to provide more information about the purpose and intent of the moratorium to avoid violation and conflicts among the citizens.

The Nimba traditional leaders' measure comes after nearly nine months after the National Council of Chiefs and Elders of Liberia on February 21 announced the suspension of the practice of  FGM for 3 years. 

The council's three-year suspension of FGM follows a one-year ban that was imposed in 2019 through the Ganta Declaration, which called for the temporary suspension. However, the Council, despite these measures, has faced an uphill battle in trying to bring this form of violence to an end. 

Many of its members have continued to break promises to suspend the practice of FGM for the next three years. FGM is said to prevent promiscuity and improve fertility. 

According to the WHO, the procedure can be fatal, with health problems including hemorrhages, cysts, chronic infections, psychological trauma, and childbirth complications.

In Liberia, nearly half of the women have been subjected to FGM, and four in 10 support the practice in the country, according to UNICEF.

Such support suggests that the practice of FGM has never been successfully outlawed in Liberia. Just before she left office in January 2018, the then President,  Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, signed an executive order on the Domestic Violence bill to ban FGM on girls under 18 years old for one year. 

Other than the temporary ban on FGM, various iterations of the bill seeking to make the practice a criminal offense have in the past suffered significant setbacks, with lawmakers dismissing the issue as a cultural matter. 

This is so because FGM is heavily entrenched in Liberian culture, dating back many centuries. Strong taboos surrounding the practice and associated Sande secret societies make tackling the practice challenging.

The country 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.

But in Nimba, the traditional leaders are hoping that the three-year ban will lead to concerted actions.  

After signing the moratorium, it was then handed over to Mark Gblinwon, the County Inspector, for full implementation and to ensure that all the actors fully adhere to it.

Gblinwon then said the county will remain vigilant to ensure that the practices are totally halted and that anyone caught in the practice will pay the fine of US$300.

“The penalty for any violator is US$300 and we will ensure the fine is paid without any delay or you face a jail sentence,” he said.

Meanwhile, the traditional leaders' commitment comes at the end of a two-day meeting held in Ganta City, Nimba County about finding ways to end the practice of FGM.

The Covenant Foundation for Girls (COVGIRLS), a locally based civil society organization convened the two days of stakeholder dialogue for the traditional leaders. The dialogue was held under the theme “Eliminating FGM/C and Promoting Bodily Autonomy and Sexual and Reproductive Rights for All.”

Some of the topics discussed during the two days dialogue were harmful cultural practices, human rights, women's rights, and the ways in which FGM affects the rights of women and girls.

There were 14 signatories to the resolution, representing 14 of the 19 administrative districts in Nimba, while the remaining districts could not attend due to flooding along most of the feeder roads.

The signing ceremony was witnessed by the head of the Chiefs and Elders Council of Nimba, Nelson Barlea, Culture Director of Nimba, and the lead representative of all FGM practitioners in Nimba County.