LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Liberia made history as the first African country to elect a female leader, but strong taboos make it one of the hardest countries to crack when it comes to tackling female genital mutilation (FGM).
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work on women’s rights, has said little on the subject. But she is in an awkward position.
FGM, an ancient ritual, is carried out in Liberia during traditional initiation ceremonies in bush schools, overseen by an immensely powerful women’s secret society called the Sande.
The girls involved are sworn to secrecy and told that they or a member of their family will die if they reveal what happens.
“Liberia is very tricky,” said Grace Uwizeye, FGM programme officer at rights group Equality Now. “The secret society makes it very difficult to penetrate or even to start talking about FGM because people are just scared. You have to make sure people understand it’s OK to talk about FGM.”
Every year thousands of girls leave their homes to attend the forest camps aimed at preparing them for marriage. They learn everything from social etiquette, good morals, domestic skills and correct sexual comportment to how to look after their future home and husband.
It is during this rite of passage that girls are subjected to FGM in which the clitoris and labia are cut. The procedure is said to prevent promiscuity and improve fertility, but it can prove fatal.
“Young girls can die from bleeding,” said Marian Gonyor, acting executive director of Women of Liberia Peace Network (WOLPNET), which is trying to eradicate FGM. “Conditions in the bush are unhealthy and cutting is often done with unsterilised razor blades or knives which are used on many girls.”
Health problems caused by FGM include haemorrhages, cysts, chronic infections, psychological trauma and childbirth complications.
Campaigners like Gonyor are working on the ground to persuade Sande leaders, known as zoes, to abandon FGM, while simultaneously lobbying the government to pass a law banning it.
“We have a very good culture and very good traditions in Liberia, but we don’t want these harmful traditional practices like forced marriages and FGM – they are a very bad part of our culture and need to be removed,” said Gonyor, speaking by phone from the Liberian capital Monrovia.
Liberia is one of 27 African countries where FGM is prevalent, and most have now banned the practice. Gonyor is hopeful that Liberia could adopt such a law in three to four years.
On Thursday, Johnson Sirleaf is expected to make a proclamation to mark International Day of Zero Tolerance of FGM. There will also be a radio talk show and newspaper articles on the issue.
These are significant signs of change in a country where public discussion of FGM has traditionally been taboo. Nonetheless, campaigners and journalists are still threatened for speaking about it.
“Campaigners have received death threats and some have even had their houses burnt down because of their work. Even journalists have been threatened and some have actually stopped talking on FGM. Some have gone into hiding,” said Equality Now’s Uwizeye, speaking from the Kenyan capital Nairobi.
Some people have been forced to go into hiding, include the award-winning Liberian journalist Mae Azango, whose 2012 expose on FGM led to death threats against her and her daughter. Some said she should be caught and subjected to FGM herself.
Although FGM contravenes human rights treaties to which Liberia is a party, campaigners say the government has been reluctant to take a stand because of Sande’s political clout.
National data suggests two thirds of girls and women have been cut in Liberia, where FGM is practised by 13 of the 16 tribes, and by both Muslim and Christian communities.
In 2012 – possibly spurred by Azango’s report – the government announced it had suspended issuing licences for Sande leaders, but campaigners say the bush schools and FGM continue despite this.
WOLPNET and Equality Now are focusing their efforts on Lofa, Bomi and Grand Cape Mount counties in the north and northwest.
“The Sande is very, very powerful. If you’re not part of the Sande you cannot be part of decision making in your community,” Gonyor said.
“Every day we receive threats. People tell you it’s not an issue to be discussed publicly. But we’re making progress. We’ve persuaded 46 zoes in three counties to remove FGM from their initiation ceremonies. This is very good news.”
In Lofa, many traditional leaders – male and female – have made a separate public declaration that they are suspending FGM. Campaigners are hoping for more mass declarations, which they will use to lobby the government.
But it’s uphill work, says Uwizeye. “At the beginning it’s very difficult to even make them talk … sometimes they just stand up and leave. But you have to keep on pushing and continue the discussion and show them that you are not there to break their culture or to break their community.”