The river holds a special place in traditional Liberian society. Why? It is because the river provides sustenance in the form of fish and other marine products; it provides washing and drinking water and very importantly water for agricultural purposes.
The river, aside from the good things it provides, can also bring suffering and misery to many when it overflows its banks and inundates crops, homes and roads.
Thus the word river can be used figuratively in several contexts to express joy or sorrow or both. Women of some ethnic groups in Liberia are known to use the term or expression to connote sorrow, deep sorrow.
In particular, this expression is associated with traditional rites for women. Most ethnic groups in Liberia, for example, practice female genital cutting, otherwise referred to as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). This is a practice hoary with age in parts of Africa where such rites of passage are observed.
In traditional society, female cutting is the entry step to a long period of training in preparation for womanhood and the responsibilities with child rearing and home keeping.
In several years gone by, such periods of training lasted for as long as 7 years after which the females graduated, breaking their long period of isolation. It was accompanied by much fanfare, feasting and rejoicing.
It is during that time a girl’s parents are informed about the death of their child in an expression that talks about a flooded river, meaning the girl child died from hemorrhage or severe loss of blood.
It is perhaps in recognition of the suffering and pain associated with this ritual that governments across the globe have enacted laws banning the practice given the adverse health risks and social stigma associated with the practice. It is currently banned in several African countries and other countries across the globe.
Former President Sirleaf placed an Executive ban on the practice rather than enacting laws to restrict its practice. The temporary ban has now expired and women advocates especially are calling for the passage of legislation to ban the practice forthwith.
But despite the enactment of laws against the practice, there is growing body of evidence showing that the practice is alive and well in Europe as well where doctors in Britain for example are reported to be performing the operation on children and even babies. Reports say this particularly strong in Muslim communities, although there is no evidence suggesting that the practice is approved by Islam.
Quite clearly there must be compelling reasons, social or religious, that would lead a parent to either take a daughter to the local physician to undergo the procedure or to the Sande bush or wherever the ritual is conducted.
It can be recalled that in Sierra Leone for example, a female journalist in Kenema who reported on the practice was stripped naked and paraded through the streets to jeering crowds that included many women onlookers as well.
On another occasion, thousands of women, including professionals and parliamentarians paraded the streets of Freetown in condemnation of those who had called for the abolition of the practice otherwise referred to as “Bondo”.
Right here in Liberia, female journalist Mae Azango was harassed and threatened with death for reporting on the issue. In the view of this newspaper, the passage of a law banning FGM is highly desirable owing to the health and other risks associated with the practice.
This newspaper must however point out that the mere passage of laws banning the practice could drive it underground where it would possibly thrive even more. In the view of this newspaper, successful elimination of the practice will only come about if behavioral attitudes and practices are changed.
In this regard it is instructive to refer to the example of the Sarpo people who, according to some accounts differed with their Bassa cousins and abandoned the practice probably over a hundred years ago. The Bassa people are said to be closely related to the Sarpo people, with some historians suggesting that the area now known as Grand Gedeh was occupied by Bassa People.
The point being underscored here is if FGM is culturally rooted, then eliminating same will require some form of cultural approach to address the problem. As it appears, little or no consideration is made of the fact that in male dominated cultures such as Mande culture, males, especially elderly males are the virtual repositories of long held values, customs and practices. And they tend to be very conservative in outlook.
In Mande culture for example, the male Zoe or traditional priest can enter any female grove at will but a female Zoe cannot necessarily do the same except, of course, she holds very high rank and can no longer bear children.
In Kwa culture also, the male priest or Bodio is the dominant personality and ranking female personalities all defer to him. All this goes to say that the FGM issue will not go away if little or no meaningful attempts are made to change or influence the attitudes and behaviors of male leaders of traditional societies which have strong legitimacy amongst ordinary people. The Liberian TRC, it is reported, successfully used a similar approach to get women victims to testify openly about sexual abuse they suffered during the civil war.
On a final note, this newspaper calls for the diversion of some the millions being spent on the eradication of FGM to addressing structural violence especially chronic and deepening poverty and very limited possibilities for self-actualization that continue to keep Liberian women in a state of subservience.
For a country where one out of every three Liberian girls gets pregnant before the age of 18 because they are forced into early sex work due to poverty, addressing structural violence against women including FGM is an Exigency.