SONKAY TOWN, Todee – This community on the outskirts of Liberia’s capital city is the frontline of one of the biggest cultural battles in the country’s recent history. Last month zoes, the traditional leaders who practice female genital cutting, surrendered their cutting tools and committed to end the practice.
By Rita Jlogbe with New Narratives
Today, in a ceremony to mark the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, Montserrado’s “bush schools”, where girls have been taught traditional ways and had their genital cutting for generations, will officially close for good.
The move comes after years of failed bans, moratoriums and promises but this was the first time zoes have surrendered their tools. The zoes took that major step under the direction of Zanzan Karwor, head of the National Council of Chiefs and Elders of Liberia (NACCEL). It is an important moment according to Comfort Lamptey, UN Women’s Liberia Country Director.
“All the previous efforts as far as we see it, are steps in a journey that would lead to eventual abolition,” said Lamptey. “And I think that this current commitment is perhaps the boldest they have done because they are looking at abandoning the practice.”
Liberia is one of only three countries in the region that has not made female genital cutting illegal. Deputy House Speaker Fonati Koffa confirmed to this paper last year that a bill in the Legislature to ban the practice does not have enough support to pass. Traditional leaders, who derive their income from fees paid for bush schools, had threatened lawmakers not to pass the bill.
After a three-year moratorium announced by traditional leaders a year ago, Front Page Africa/New Narratives documented that it was quickly abandoned by practitioners across the country. Many Liberian parents have refused to submit their daughters to the practice. Sande membership has plummeted from 83 percent in 2007 to 35 percent in 2020 according to Demographic and Health Surveys. This prompted some zoes to resort to kidnapping girls, cutting them against their parents’ will and extorting money.
Madam Lamptey says this move is different from previous bans and she commends the Liberian approach because it is led by traditional leaders themselves. For this reason she believes it will have more teeth than in other countries where bans are rarely enforced.
“We are very much looking forward to this example which I think will have a ripple effect in terms of ending the practice,” Lamptey said. “I believe that Liberia is in a good place and the model that Liberia is pursuing, if it works, is one that other countries can also learn from.”
It’s a fragile moment in the movement and success is not certain. Zoes here have not been persuaded by arguments that FGC is harmful for girls despite well documented evidence of its long term physical and psychological impacts. They have agreed to end the practice only after promises from UN Women and others that their lost income will be replaced by strong economic empowerment projects.
“The people signed the paper, and they say we should not do any zoe business again,” said Massa Kandakai, head of zoes in Montserrado. “But we [are] waiting. We waiting to see what they will do for us. The thing that there is, they say we must sit down, we [are] not refusing because the papay is our big man. We [are] sitting down, all the promises they made when they come and do it, ok. Because that the people own of old, old thing them so you can’t just tell them to give it like that.”
Central to UN Women’s empowerment plans are heritage centers teach zoes new trades and skills in business creation and management. Lamptey said bush schools were not helping zoes build long term wealth. The heritage centers and the opportunities they will provide will help them attract other investors and development partners with the new skills for economic empowerment.
“We believe in women’s economic empowerment,” said Lamptey. “We are not pursuing the alternative livelihood programs because we want them to exchange the practice for livelihoods but because UN women is committed to educating them about wealth creation through alternative livelihoods.”
UN Women’s “Spotlight Initiative”, in collaboration with the government and funding from the European Union and United Nations, has constructed four vocational and heritage centers in four of Liberia’s eleven FGC practicing counties: Montserrado, Bong, Nimba and Grand Cape Mount.
The center here in Todee is built on five acres that used to host the largest bush school. The compound now has a school with six classrooms, a dining hall and a hall. On a recent visit it was busy with women coming and going.
But Kandakai warned that is not enough. “We want for them to do other things for us,” Massa said. “Like, for example, I, the Zoe, no good house for me, and no house for the zoes to sleep when they come.”
The Spotlight Initiative was praised by Jaha Dukureh, UN Women Goodwill Ambassador for Africa on FGC and child marriage, who visited Liberia in November. Dukureh, a survivor of both FGC and child marriage, encouraged a dialogue with traditional leaders to practice what she calls “Initiation Without Mutilation – which means that you should keep all the positive part of the culture, but you leave out the cutting of the girls.” Recognizing that income from bush schools was a major reason zoes continued the practice, Dukureh encouraged economic empowerment.
“It’s important that you invest directly into the community that we are helping these traditional women and these zoes,” said Dukureh. “So that when we are taking away that side of how they earn money, you are replacing it with something that is more rewarding; something that can produce more for them and then help with uplifting more women out of poverty, increasing the food security in Africa.”
This story is a collaboration with New Narratives as part of its Investigating Liberia project. Funding was provided by the US Embassy. The funder had no say in the story’s content.