Liberian tribal leaders agree to limited suspension of female genital mutilation

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Girls stand in a classroom in the village where Mama Tormah lives. Tormah is the head zoe of the Sande Society. (Photo by Bonnie Allen.)

Liberian female leaders who operate a powerful secret society in Liberiahave agreed to shut down their schools and stop female genital cutting, also known as female circumcision, for several years.

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But they still reject any criticism of what they say is a long-standing cultural practice.

Mama Tormah, head zoe for the Sande Society and one of the most powerful traditional leaders in Liberia, has confirmed that she transferred traditional land over to the Poro Society for men this past November so that it can use the area for its ceremonies and training. The women have been monopolizing the land since 2005 for their schools and its initiation ceremony, which includes female genital cutting.

“It is their time now,“ Tormah told PRI, while sitting on her porch, dressed in a blue and yellow ‘lappa’ gown.

The gray-haired grandmother never had the chance to learn to read or write, and said this suspension of activities will allow young girls to stay in school rather than being forced into the bush.

“When the time comes for the women (to resume operations), by that time, our children will be big big and willing to go," she said.

Tormah refused to discuss female genital cutting, but the land transfer effectively shuts down Sande schools as well as the related cutting for four years. The Liberian government, which has never taken a public position on the issue, is seizing the opportunity to work with traditional leaders to phase out the cultural practice altogether.

The “government is saying this needs to stop,” said Julia Duncan Cassell, Liberia’s newly-appointed Gender Minister, during a sit-down interview in her office. “The process is in making sure that it’s stopped.”

In Liberia, two out of three teenage girls, some even younger, are pulled out of school and taken into the bush for several weeks or months for traditional training. The girls learn proper hygiene, hair braiding, basket weaving and how to take care of their future husbands. As part of their initiation, part or all of a girl’s clitoris is cut off.

It happened to Kulah Borbor when she was 16.

“They will lay you down and sit here,” Borbor said, pointing to your chest. “(They) will tie your hands like this (over your head) and tie your face so that you will not see the instrument they will use.”

Borbor said her clitoris was cut off using a razor or knife, she’s not sure, while a group of women held her down.

“It was a lot of pain. I can’t measure that pain with any other pain," she said.

Last year, a 17-year-old girl, Lotopoe Yeamah, died from a severe hemorrhage after undergoing the practice in a small village in north central Liberia.

The 2007 Liberia Demographic and Health Survey, the most recent statistics available, showed about 58 percent of Liberian women ages 15 to 49 have been subjected to the procedure,, which is practiced by 10 of Liberia’s 16 tribes. They say it will make the woman less likely to be promiscuous because it reduces their ability to feel sexual pleasure.

The Sande and Poro societies in Liberia forbid anyone from revealing their secrets. When a Liberian reporter, Mae Azango, recently published an expose on female cutting, she was threatened with assault or worse and had to go into hiding. The societies are so powerful that membership is necessary for social, economic, or political influence in villages across two thirds of the country.

Likewise, despite international pressure and a woman as president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the Liberian government hasn’t publicly condemned female genital circumcision. But with the new cessation, the Liberian government is, for the first time ever, taking action at a national level.

“There has been a statement put out by the Ministry [of Internal Affairs] asking all of our mothers, our aunts, our sisters, to start to desist from such practices,” Cassell said, indicating the government wants to abide by its obligations under international human rights laws.

She said the government has been talking to traditional leaders privately for some time, and concluded an outright ban would cause a backlash.

“You can’t just stop something that years and years ago your ancestors started. You have to be able to work along with (traditional leaders)," she said.

Liberia is one of nine African nations with no laws banning the procedure. The recently passed Children’s Act states Liberian children should not be subjected to “any unnecessary or uncultured practice” that inflicts physical pain, but the phrase “uncultured” is vague and undefined.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs, the government department that normally sanctions traditional practices, has been refusing permits to any Sande society since January, said Joseph Janga, assistant minister of culture. He wrote a letter to the traditional chiefs and zoes in December that diplomatically “requests” they stop Sande bush activities. When interviewed by PRI, he said he would dispatch inspectors in April to report any zoes who violate the “order”.

In August 2009, the United Nations committee overseeing the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) criticized Liberia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs for issuing permits to practitioners of “female genital mutilation” and said it was “an explicit form of support for the practice and thereby undermine(s) any efforts to eliminate it.”

Cassell said the next step would be to economically empower traditional zoes. Already, eighty “cutters” from two counties were trained in small business management.

“If we don’t do something then these people will go back to where they came from. So we are going to go from county to county now and ask them, ‘Look, if we want them to do this, what are we going to give them in place of that?’ Because for some of them it’s their livelihood," she said.

As Mama Tormah sits on her porch, watching school girls cram into a nearby school, she is both diplomatic and defiant.

“We know the country has changed. We are in modern days. So, we are changing the system small small until we reach to the end,” Tormah said. “But it can’t be the way they want it to happen, as quickly as they want it to happen. We’re not ready for people to say, ‘No more Sande.’ We can’t do that. You will damage the country.”

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