Traditional female leaders who operate a powerful secret society in Liberia have agreed to shut down their bush schools and stop female genital cutting, also known as female circumcision, for several years, while still rejecting any criticism of the 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 bush for its ceremonies and training. The women have been monopolizing the land since 2005 for their bush schools and the initiation ceremony of female genital cutting.
"We have given [the traditional land] to the men — 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."
Tormah refused to discuss female genital cutting (FGC), but the land transfer effectively shuts down Sande bush schools and FGC — often called mutilation — for four years. The Government of Liberia, which has never taken a public position on the issue, is now seizing the opportunity to work with traditional leaders to phase out the cultural practice altogether.
"Government is saying this needs to stop," declared Liberia's newly-appointed Gender Minister, Julia Duncan Cassell, during a sit-down interview in her office. "The process is on in making sure that it's stopped."
In Liberia, two out of three teenage girls — sometimes younger — are pulled out of school and taken into the bush for several weeks or months for traditional training called "Sande bush". 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."
Last year, a 17-year-old girl, Lotopoe Yeamah, allegedly died from 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, showed the prevalence of circumcision among Liberian women ages 15 to 49 is about 58 percent. The procedure is usually practiced by 10 of Liberia's 16 tribes, and is reportedly intended to reduce sexual pleasure and, consequently, the likelihood that a woman will be promiscuous.
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 received threats 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 female President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the Liberian government hasn't taken a public position against female genital circumcision. But with the moratorium on Sande bush, the Liberian government is now, for the first time ever, taking action at the 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," said Gender Minister Cassell, indicating that the Government of Liberia wants to abide by its obligations under international human rights laws.
She revealed that the government has been talking privately to traditional leaders for some time, and it has concluded that 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]."
Liberia is one of nine African nations with no laws banning the procedure. The recently passed Children's Act states that 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 as of January 2012 according to 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, but when interviewed by PRI, said he will 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."
Liberia's Gender Minister said the next step will be to empower traditional zoes economically. Already, eighty "cutters" from two counties were trained in small business management in September 2011.
"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."
As Mama Tormah sits on her porch, watching school girls in yellow uniforms cram into a nearby school alongside boys, 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," said Tormah. "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."
Schoolgirls in the classroom in the village of Mama Tormah, head zoe of Sande Society. (Photo: Bonnie Allen)