Liberia: Traditional Leaders Want Alternative Livelihoods, Sustained Dialogues to End Female Genital Mutilation

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Chief Zanzan Kawar said the livelihoods of women traditional leaders including elders depend on preparing women and girls to become successful and respectable housewives and law abiding citizens, and as such, there was a need to provide alternative economic livelihood for practitioners.

Monrovia – Liberia’s top traditional leaders led by Chief Zanzar Kawar, Chairman of the National Traditional Council of Elders and Chiefs have called on the government and the international community for continued and holistic dialogue surrounding their (government and partners) request to end Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).

There have been growing concern by campaigners since back to back executive orders banning the practice expired. To mark the celebration of the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, the government and its partners organized an event which brought together the traditional leaders and called on them to see reasons to end the practice.

The event held in Fortville, near the Port City of Buchanan in Grand Bassa County on Friday was held under the global theme “No time for Global inaction, Unite, Fund and Act to End Female Genital Mutilation!” and the National Theme “Together We can make a difference in ending FGM”,

In response, Chief Kawar, flanked by several of his members, said the Sande society is one of the most sacred traditional institutions that has been in existence for ages, and it is where girls are taught to be respectable housewives and citizens. So, it requires continued engagements with the main players in order to end its most sacred rituals, FGM.

He added that the livelihoods of most women traditional leaders including elders depend on preparing women and girls to become successful and respectable housewives and law abiding citizens, and as such, there was a need to provide alternative economic livelihood for practitioners.

“It will not be an event, it is a process because this bush school has been with us for long and it is where our women and girls go to become respectable housewives and peaceful citizens,” he said while speaking through an interpreter in his native Bassa vernacular.

FGM, which involves the partial or complete removal of the external genitalia, is a key rite of passage in the bush school. But it often causes health problems that can be fatal.

The fight to end FGM suffered a major setback in 2017 when the Legislature removed a clause which criminalized the practice from the domestic violence bill on grounds that it was a cultural matter.

Since then, back to back executive orders imposed by ex-president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and President George Weah have expired, leaving activists more concerned about the fate of many women and girls who are likely to be victimized.

Speaking earlier at the event, Liberia’s Minister of Gender, Children and Social Protection, Williametta Saydee Tarr called for a united front in the fight against the practice.

“While we continue to engage on zero tolerance for FGM, I would like to highlight that changing cultural norms and beliefs must come from within the community itself – the community itself needs to rally around and take ownership of the fight,” she urged.

Speaking further, she said the government, with support from its partners launched the Spotlight Initiative to eliminate violence against women and girls including sexual and gender-based violence and harmful practices. Currently, the project is being implemented in five counties: Montserrado, Lofa, Grand Gedeh, Nimba, and Grand Cape Mount.

As part of the project, she revealed that an alternative economic livelihood program involving teaching basic vocational skills currently launched in Grand Cape Mount County for practitioners of FGM and expressed hope that the program will eliminate the financial incentive for continuing the practice. Soon, the project will be extended to remaining implementing counties, she said.

She also mentioned that Phase Two of the program would include the rest of the counties that are not covered in Phase one.

UN Women Country Representative, Marie Goreth Nizigama, speaking on behalf of UN Resident Coordinator Niels Scott, outlined some of the harrowing effects of FGM, including pain, infertility, anxiety and depression, adding, “Girls that undergo FGM are also more susceptible to HIV infections and risk serious complications when giving birth and in worst cases, FGM also leads to death.”

“If we want our young girls to grow up safely and healthy, we need all levels of society to say no to FGM, Madam Nizigama cautioned.

In Liberia, the UN Women Country Representative said about fifty percent of women and girls aged between 15 and 49 years have undergone FGM while globally, an estimated two hundred million girls and women alive today have undergone some form of FGM. Additionally, over twenty-five million people in around eighteen thousand communities across fifteen countries have publicly renounced the practice since 2008, leading to a reduction of the practice at global level. This is a significant progress, and Liberia needs to make that change for which policies actions and resources are required, she urged.

Liberia, she said, has had its gains in the fight against FGM including conducting an inventory that documented a total of 1,355 females traditional zoes (priestesses or FGM executioners) which has allowed Liberia to strategically target the zoes and provide them with alternative economic livelihood activities in the five Spotlight Counties. These zoes have successfully organized village savings and loans associations, generating some alternative income in the place of FGM, she noted.

In addition, she revealed that the construction of vocational and heritage centers in four spotlight counties has commenced in order for traditional practitioners to have a space in which to conduct their business skills as well as provide knowledge to young women and girls, similar to what is done in the bush school  but without the practice of FGM.

Chief Karwar, along with local officials from across the country called on the government and partners to build vocational and heritage centers and establish the village savings and loans in all of the counties, noting that it will be a significant step to convincing other practitioners of FGM to abandon the practice.

For his part, European Union Ambassador, Laurent Delahousse noted that Liberia was among few countries in Africa still practicing FGM. According to him, while the Liberian government was taking some meaningful steps in its attempt to eliminate the practice, it cannot work alone, adding “It is not for the international community to impose things – it is for you, the people of Liberia, to change this practice. It is for your traditional leaders, the elders, and the women to work together.”

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