Liberia: Traditional Council Pledges to Fight FGM

The National Coordinator of Chiefs and Elders of Liberia, Setta Fofana Saah, has broken silence on the position of her institution when it comes to the issue of female genital mutilation (FGM).

The council, according to its coordinator, is working on plans with civil society organizations, in making sure that the practices of FGM and other harmful traditional practices be laid to rest in the country. 

"The position of the civil society organizations has been a wish for the council of chiefs and elders to get fully involved with the FGM campaign, and as traditional leaders of the country, we are interested in educating and protecting our youthful generation, so we will, " disclosed Madam Saah.

The traditional council staff added that the country's youthful populations are future leaders, and their rights should not be infringed upon by any group of individuals. 

The issue of 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. 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.

Due to the lack of policy regarding female genital mutilation in Liberia, Marie Goreth Nizigama, of U.N. Women Liberia, said, “50% of women and girls aged between 15-49 years” have been mutilated. On the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation in 2012, Chief Zanzan Karwo 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.

Ruth Berry Peal’s case

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.

Zaye Doe’s case

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.

Madam Saah's assurance comes at the unveiling of a project entitled: “Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR)  by a consortium campaigning against FGM in Liberia.  The consortium focuses on building a synopsis on messaging advocacy, and awareness-raising to pressure the government to comply with its international human rights commitments while protecting women and girls and marginalized groups.

FMG is a procedure that is performed on the genital tissue of a female ranging in age from infancy to adulthood. It can be as little as a small nick or as much as the removal of all the tissue. The practice is viewed by some as a traditional rite of passage and by others as an unnecessary, painful, and harmful procedure that can leave a female with physical and psychological problems and can even result in death.

The altering or removal of female genital tissue is usually done in nonmedical settings—with unhygienic conditions and without anesthesia. The cutting of the genital tissue may be performed with broken pieces of glass, razor blades, knives, scalpels, or scissors. In infibulation, the vaginal orifice is also sewn or otherwise sealed shut.

Madam Saah’s commitment also comes in the midst of mixed reactions to a recent statement made by Vice President Jewel Howard Taylor, where she advocated for the construction of traditional schools to teach young girls and boys about traditional values.

“Liberia must continue to exist and if Liberians want their traditions to be transferred from one generation to another, a key strategy is to operate traditional schools across the country,” the VP said. “If this strategy is implemented, it will leave a serious mark on all of the hope and aspirations that the FGM roadmap document carries.”

The Vice President then expressed the hope that someday, when the FGM practices may have been abolished, she would love to see her daughter or granddaughter be admitted to traditional schools, where they will learn about their ancestral traditions.

Meanwhile, Naomi Nelly, Executive Director for the Community Health Initiative said, the intent of the consortium is to buttress the government’s efforts in protecting citizens from the practices of the FGM and SRHR.

Madam Nelly said, in times past, there have been separate groups working towards the eradication of the FGM and the SRHR, but with the project, all of the FGM groupings now speak with one voice as a means of creating awareness against the practice. Other speakers, including Nelley Cooper, Executive director of the West Point Women for Health And Development Organization (WPHDOA), expressed similar interest to collaborate with the civil society organizations in tackling the issue of FGM and the SRHR.

Tamba Johnson, executive director of HEforSHE Crusaders Liberia (HEFOSEL), said: “We have to come together to continue to raise a red flag against the practices of FGM and other related harmful practices, that continue to pose serious health problems to our young girls and women. 

“It is time to provide support and education to them, young girls and women, that their bodies belong to them, and it is only themselves, who can make a decision on how to control it, and not anyone else to make it for them,” Mr. Johnson said.