Standing Up to Sande Bush

...Two mothers are demanding the release of their girls forcefully abducted and that the zoes responsible be prosecuted

It has been more than two weeks since Deborah Parker and Miatta King’s daughters along with 3 other girls were abducted and forcefully initiated into the Sande Society by traditionalists (Zoes), in Mount Barclay, on the outskirts of Paynesville City. 

The ‘Sande Bush’, as it is commonly known in Liberia, is a secret society that trains girls for life in domestic arts, farming, midwifery and other forms of caregiving. The Sande are also known for the practice of female genital mutilation on girls and women. The 5 girls were adopted by the local traditionalists (zoes) without the consent of the parents on allegations that the girls caused public disturbances and were seen using obscene language in the neighborhood.

Miatta’s 18-year-old daughter (identity protected), now a 10th-grade student, was due to sit an entrance exam at the new school she’s expected to enroll at for the 2022 academic year. Deborah’s 17-year-old daughter, a student of the Mother Patern College of Health Sciences, has missed more than 2 weeks of school, as a result of her abduction. 

Since the abduction of the girls on September 29, life has been devastating for Miatta and Deborah. On top of this, the extra financial demands by the Sande authorities requesting food, medication, materials, and money for the upkeep of the girls in the bush have made the matter even more difficult for the poor families.  

“Going to Sande Bush should be by choice, and not by forcing anyone into it! I want all those zoes who took our children by force into the Sande Bush be put to jail and get punished.” 

“We have community leaders and we have police. So if my daughter was seen abusing, why didn’t they take her to the law, but instead into the Sande? Let them pay for what they have done to our children and then release them to us,” Deborah Parker lamented.

The Liberian Constitution article 21(e) forbids the use of any form of torture, degrading treatment, humiliation against a person.   

Tearful & Traumatic

On the day Deborah and Miatta’s girls and the others were abducted, it was a moment of sorrow and a day that can never be forgotten. Eyewitnesses say the traditional zoes paraded the girls in the community, rubbed chalk on them while community residents in Mt. Barclay stood by watching as the girls cried helplessly. Their parents frantically tried pleading and negotiating with the local police, especially the head of women and children protection session in Mt. Barclay, to have the girls released, but to no avail.

As of the date of this publication, it has been 20 days since the five girls were forcefully taken into the Sande Bush and the initiation rites (including FGM) believed to have already been performed. The mothers can only hope that their girls are returned to them safe and in good health as the 3 weeks ultimatum given the traditionalists for the girls’ release by the Director of Culture and Customs at the Ministry of Internal Affairs draws to an end this week although the initiation has already taken place. 

“As for the initiation, we know they (zoes) have already done what they wanted to do, and we cannot undo that, it has already happened, but when our children come out, anything happens to those girls, I want to law to hold the zoes (traditionalists) also responsible,” Deborah said.

 The bush, according to Miatta, the mother of the 18 years old, is very cold, especially because it’s the rainy season. Regularly, they are made to send medication and food at their own expense.

For Miatta King, a single mother, since her daughter was abducted, not only has it caused her trauma, but also a loss of income. She and her children survive from the sales of cooked food. Because of her daughter’s abduction, the business had stalled.

“Things have gone so bad with me since the incident, almost every day I have to take food there in the bush and transport myself, and at the same time meet up with the demands of the bush. All the little money I have is finished. I even stopped selling because if I cook the food for sale, who will I leave the food with to sell?” Miatta complained.

On top of all these, Miatta and Deborah revealed how they and the other 3 mothers, who because of fear have not spoken out, regularly take medications (especially antibiotics) and other items to the bush.

When girls and women have gone through mutilation (circumcision), it causes severe bleeding or urinary problems, and sometimes cysts, infections, or even deaths resulting from complications during the cutting. There may also be complications during childbearing over a period. About 44.4 percent of Liberian girls and women have been cut (circumcised) according to a report by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. 

Despite calls from their families and other community members, urging Deborah and Miatta to keep quiet for fear of their children being ritually harmed in the Sande Bush, each day that passes by, Miatta and Deborah continue to call out for help to ensure their girls are released.  

The Rule of Law VS Tradition  

The Constitution of Liberia supersedes every order norms in the land. Article 11(b) of the Constitution states: “All persons, irrespective of ethnic background, race, sex, creed, place of origin, political opinion, are entitled to the fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual, subject to such qualification as provided for in this constitution.” 

But when it comes to the issue of Sande and the Poro (the male counterpart), where forceful initiation of persons have taken place, even law enforcement officers tend to fear traditional zoes -- and the Sande and Poro institutions themselves -- with the victims left without hope and protection.

Across Liberia, discussion about the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is almost taboo.

Internal Affairs Confirmed Forceful Initiation

When contacted, William Jallah, the Director of Customs and Culture at the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the agency of government responsible to oversee all traditional matters in the country, confirmed the forced initiation of 5 girls, which he added was in total violation of girls’ rights and the traditional practice.

“On behalf of the ministry of internal affairs, I want to take this time to strongly condemn the abduction of those children and it’s in our policy, which speaks against forceful initiation. So we condemn the act.

“The policy says that, ‘no one -- be it a Sande Zoe or any cultural luminary -- has the right to force or take away anyone to the bush (be it Sande or Poro). The person must be willing or, by the consent of his/her parents.’ That is why we, in the strongest terms, condemn the act,” Director Jallah said.

When quizzed about the punishment against traditionalists who forcefully initiate people into Sande, director Jallah said at the level of the ministry, traditionalists are given ‘cultural punishment’. Said punishment could range from payment of fine, said zoe(s) underwriting the costs of providing feeding and medication while the survivor(s) is in the bush until the day of their release.  

“The lady (zoe) involved, who was responsible for taking away the children, said the children were having confusion and they insulted one another, which was also a culture violation. But that did not give her the right to take the children. We have a law. They should have been taken to court.”

Director Jallah did not, however, say how the ministry is enforcing the cultural punishment against the traditionalists who forcefully initiated the 5 girls; as the 3 weeks ultimatum for the release of the girls is set to come to an end this Friday, October 22, 2021.

Traditional leaders who forcefully initiate females into the Sande face little or no repercussions in Liberia’s Court System.

Efforts by human rights advocates, who have been advocating to have the practice of Female Genital Mutilation and forceful initiation criminalized in Liberia’s New Domestic Violence Law (DVL), failed up to the time of its passage in 2019. The 54th Liberian legislature passed the domestic violence law, but removed the FGM component.

On January 19, 2018, just before handing over power to President George Weah, former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf signed Executive Order 92, temporarily banning the practice of FGM just for a year.

The ban was considered by some advocates as a step in the right direction. It only covered girls below the age of 18 and imposed lenient penalties on perpetrators. Even with the executive order at the time, activists affirmed that cuttings were still taking place, but clandestinely.

With the abduction of the 5 girls under the watch of the women and children protection section of the Liberia National Police in Mt. Barclay, as well as the Ministry of International Affairs, through whom the mothers initially sought interventions to prevent their girls from being taken into the bush, but failed, these parents have to endure a harrowing wait, apparently until the Sande Bush has expressed readiness to release the girls.

“They cannot just initiate someone and we immediately order for their release,” Director Jallah told the reporter. “It’s not just possible, as culture dictates. There are processes we need to go through, so that’s why we have to let those processes go on so that we, too, cannot breach our culture and traditions.”    

Women rights advocate and former executive director of the Women NGO Secretariat of Liberia, Lena Cummings, described the abduction of the girls as unfortunate.

“My disappointment is in the internal affairs Ministry. No community norms, cultural norms, supersedes the constitution of Liberia. That shows us that we are not protected. And if the women and children protection session said they couldn’t do anything because the case is with the Zoes so they could not do anything, then there’s no need to have police depots within communities. Let them be closed,” Madam Cummings lamented.  

Liberia has signed and ratified several regional and international human rights instruments. Those instruments call upon the state to ensure that women and girls are protected from all forms of violence and discrimination including Female Genital Mutilation.

They include the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), The Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol), The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child.

Locally, the domestic violence law, which was introduced in 2016 in its initial form, sought to put an end to the practice of FGM, but this aspect of the law faced serious defeat, dashing the hopes of rights advocates.

The Domestic Violence Act (amending Chapter 16, Offences Against the Family, of the Penal Code to add a subchapter on Domestic Violence) initially, before its passage in its draft stage, would have amended the criminal law to make Female Genital Mutilation on a girl under the age of 18 – or a woman 18 years or over without her consent – punishable for violators, to include rehabilitation for survivors and fines.