Liberia: ‘No Money, No Ending FGM’

Massa Kandakai, Monts. County’s Chief female traditional leader

....  “I have two hundred proper Zoes in Montserrado alone, with about 2,000 across the country, how do they expect us to live when the Government is not living by their promises to us,” Kandakai emphasized. 

A leading female traditional leader in Montserrado county has threatened that the ritual of female genital mutilation, which has over the years impacted half of Liberia women and girls (between 15 and 49 years of age), will continue unless they are paid to stop the traditional practice.

The remark from Massa Kandakai, the county’s Chief female traditional leader, is in apparent disregard to a three-year ban by the government and Traditional Council of Liberia — which is intended to slow down the cultural practice that many do consider harmful. 

But Kandakai, who like many cutters across the country learned the practice long ago,  sees it as more than a mandatory rite of passage. For her, personally, it is also a source of livelihood.

She says “Only paying  ‘Zoes’ (female traditional leaders) regularly will put stop to female genital mutilation or hold the moratorium posted on the Sande Bush activities.”

 “I have two hundred proper Zoes in Montserrado alone, with about 2,000 across the country, how do they expect us to live when the Government is not living by their promises to us,” Kandakai emphasized. 

Kandakai shockingly says all these efforts by the government and partners to end FGM will not materialize until they consider payment of Zoes, saying, “Sande schools are not only traditional but have economic benefits which they are surviving on.”

The issue of FGM, which is a procedure where the female genitals are cut, or changed, 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. 

It is usually carried out on young girls between infancy and the age of 15, most commonly before puberty starts, and is painful -- leading to serious harm to the health of women and girls as well as causing long-term problems with sex, childbirth, and mental health, according to the World Health Organization.

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).

On the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation in 2012, Chief Zanzan Karwor who is the leader of Liberia’s National Traditional Council expressed frustration, rebuking international groups that have sought to abolish female genital mutilation in Liberia.

He believes that FGM prepares young women to become good wives. Despite pushback, the pressure to end female genital mutilation in Liberia continues. Williametta E. Saydee Tarr, the gender, children, and social protection minister in Liberia, claims that plans are being pursued to make FGM permanently illegal, but since then, the practice is still ongoing.

On her last day in office in 2018, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf signed an executive order on the Domestic Violence bill to ban FGM on girls under 18 years old. However, the ban expired in February 2019. 

Additionally, the punishments included rehabilitation and fines which are determined on a case-by-case basis — none of which deterred practicing communities. Traditional leaders have significant power and influence over the Liberian community and often over policymakers. Once girls reach age 18, they will face immense pressure to undergo FGM in order to remain in the community.

The temporary ban on FGM was not as effective as initially anticipated during its one year of existence as a law. This was mainly due to a lack of knowledge on the existence of the ban and a lack of a coordinated multi-sectoral implementation by state agencies. Even with the existence of the Executive Order, the number of Sande bushes in Liberia has increased with the practice now extending to 11 counties from the previous 10.

Other than the temporary ban on FGM, there has never been any solid attempt at making FGM illegal in Liberia. 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 ban on Sande Secret Society operations, including FGM.

Kandakai noted that they are awarded resources at the end of every initiation, something they rely on to sustain their families, hence, the practice cannot be stopped without a proper negotiation. 

“I can assure you, we will stop the practice when they give us money because then I am able to go into the different brushes to talk to my women,” Kandakai declared. “Until that is done, we cannot be a part of this campaign to end FGM. Because even the people asking us to stop tradition, too, have a tradition. We cannot just go to them and tell them to stop it without negotiating with them.”

She called on the Government with International partners to provide more funding as the only means to disengage from the FGM they are demanding to eradicate. 

“Our Culture is very rich. It teaches girls [to become] mature Women, to take their responsibilities and manage their families properly, but the act of Female genital mutilation is harmful and causes serious problems in many life including stigmatization,” said UN goodwill ambassador Jaha Dukureh, an FGM and child marriage survivor. She is here on a campaign to dialogue with the government, traditional leaders and stakeholders to end the practice as by law and culture.

“Besides, the FGM component, the African culture has a lot of other pillars that are beneficial to womanhood,” she said. “The Harmful part of the traditional practices is posing health hazards and stigmatizing many  African Women across the globe,” Jaha explained.