A Call To Action

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The temporary ban placed on Sande and Poro activities until otherwise ordered as reported in the June 27, 2019, edition of the Daily Observer, headlined “Traditional Chiefs, Elders Ban Poro, Sande Activities,” has claimed the attention of this newspaper.

According to the story written by Daily Observer Nimba County correspondent, Ishmael Menkor, chiefs and elders from around the country, following discussions held during a two-day retreat in Ganta during the week, decided to place a temporary ban on the conduct of Poro and Sande activities around the country.

With the exception of counties in the Southeast that include Maryland, Grand Gedeh, Grand Kru and Sinoe, where the Poro and Sande societies do not exist but where there is the existence of traditional secret societies, the ban would apply to the rest of the country.

According to the story, the placing of a temporary ban on Poro and Sande activities is due to reports of forced initiations and other infringements on the rights of non-members. But this is not the first report of incidences involving Poro and Sande adherents, who have been accused of infringing upon the rights of others.

According to a December, 2015 United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) report, the Sande and Poro societies are the trusted custodians of “culture” in much of the country and have been present in the region, including Guinea, Sierra Leone, Cote d’Ivoire” and Liberia, for centuries.

Further according to the report, these societies, though not considered to be religious institutions, have a spiritual dimension, although its adherents may also have ties to Islam or Christianity. They have a training regimen that prepares children to withstand the rigors of adulthood amongst which is the ability to withstand hardships and pain. The training regimen also includes the inculcation of values and skills that are conducive to communal harmony.

The Sande is the secret female society, considered a counterpart to the Poro. It is important to underscore, however, that similar secret societies do exist in the Southeast. But unlike the Poro and Sande, circumcision (both male and female) is not considered a rite of passage.

According to the 2013 Liberia Demographic and Health Survey by the Liberia Institute of Statistics and Geo-Information Services (LISGIS), 49.8 percent of Liberians between the ages of 15 and 49 are members of the Poro and Sande, which suggests the need for a reexamination of the tenuous relations subsisting between the Liberian state and the Poro and Sande societies.

Culturally, these institutions wield a lot of power and because of their role in passing on values and skills from one generation to the next, resolving disputes and establishing social norms, they are held in high esteem, according to the UNMIL report.

However, reports of members of these institutions committing acts that infringe on the rights of others are not only disturbing, but suggest a pressing need for the state to address itself to the duality of our legal system and its corresponding failure to provide unfettered access to justice for all.

Although abduction and forced initiation, including circumcision of minors and/or adults are all activities criminalized under our penal laws and are prohibited, the UNMIL December, 2015 report observes that while the domestic legal framework does prohibit such activities, including female genital cutting, these for the most part are not touched by the formal legal system largely because they are considered part and parcel of the country’s cultural traditions and heritage.

The scrapping of that section of the proposed “Domestic Violence” Bill criminalizing female genital cutting suggests that victims of such practice do not stand to benefit from the protection of the law; that is, statutory law.

It can be recalled that the passage of the Bill was stalled in 2016 largely out of concern that those legislators voting in its favor ran the risk of not being reelected by their largely rural constituencies. This probably explains why official government guidelines were framed in such a way as to imply prosecution of violators would only take place within the context or confines of the traditional justice system, because Zoes could only be tried under customary law.

Whatever the case, the Daily Observer welcomes the decision by the Chiefs and Elders to place a temporary ban until such issues can be addressed. The ministries of Justice and Internal Affairs would need to engage the Judiciary as well as Traditional leaders, including Zoes and Elders, to find a nexus between Statutory and Customary law that will help enhance the achievement of the prime objective to grant access to justice for all and without favor or fear.

The Temporary Ban on Poro and Sande Activities should be seen for what it is — a CALL to ACTION!

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