Liberia: As Membership Plummets Traditional Leaders Resort to Kidnapping, Forced Genital Cutting, and Extortion
In part two of this two-part series with New Narratives, Evelyn Kpadeh Seagbeh finds Liberians are abandoning the Sande traditional society leading some leaders to resort to kidnapping and forced cutting.
MOUNT BARCLAY, Montserrado – Deborah Parker was 15 when she was sent to a “Bush school” run by the Sande traditional society in her home village of Bahn, Nimba County. During the final initiation ceremony, in an act that she says was traumatic and painful, traditional leaders known as “Zoes” held her down and sliced off her external genitalia with a razor blade. Parker had no say. It was the choice of her parents who, like everyone in the village, were members of the traditional society.
By Evelyn Kpadeh Seagbeh with New Narratives
But when Parker’s own daughter reached her teenage years, she refused to put her through it.
Parker is part of a mass movement of Liberians who have abandoned the women’s traditional society known as Sande, and with it the dangerous practice at the heart of it: female genital cutting. Membership of the Sande in Liberia has plummeted from 83% in 2007 to 35% in 2020 according to Demographic and Health Surveys. In the 2020 Survey the majority of women (64%) said that the practice should not be continued; only 20% said that it should.
For women like Parker FGC often involves a lifetime of health problems including difficulty in childbirth. Women can live with lifelong impacts from the trauma. Parker did not want it for her daughter. But that choice was taken from her.
In 2021 Parker’s daughter and four other teenage girls here were abducted from their school here and taken to the Sande without their parent’s consent.
“The one that hurts me even more, is the way they humiliated my daughter,” said Parker, her voice thick with emotion. “They dragged, disgraced her and the community people were bullying the girls on the day they forced them into the Sande.”
The parents sought help from the police only to be told, Parker said, that the matter was in the hands of Zoes as such they as police officers could not do anything. The parents pleaded for help from the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the arm of government responsible for traditional matters, with no result.
The outrage only deepened for Parker when the Sande demanded money, clothes, alcohol, oil, and other food items day-after-day in return for ‘educating and housing’ her daughter. Unless she paid, they threatened, her daughter would starve.
After six weeks the girls’ mothers discovered their location and rescued them. At the time the tearful daughter told this reporter that she would never be the same.
Today I see myself sitting here the way I am now, then what I knew myself to be as a woman before they carried us.”
Parker sent all the money she had to the Sande, including $US40 so-called “graduation fee” they demanded to release her. She had nothing left to send her daughter to school.
“I am feeling bad because schools have opened and all our friends are in school and we are not,” said the daughter in December (her name is being withheld for her security). “Everyone wants to go to school to learn to gain something for themselves in the future.”
Parker is still demanding the traditional leader who took her daughter be prosecuted. The accused, Hawa Kromah, denied she was a traditional leader or took the girls to this reporter. But the girls say she is boasting to people that nothing will happen to her because the traditional societies are protected.
“When they forced our children into Sande, we advocated that we wanted justice, we wanted lawyers and we wanted the woman who carried our children to be prosecuted,” Parker said. “We never saw any head and nor tail (of justice). Some lawyers told us that, they could not plead for us because it was a traditional matter.”
That could change if a bill before the legislature is passed. The new bill would bring Liberia into line with all but two others countries in West Africa making female genital cutting illegal.
In a letter addressed to the speaker of the House of Representatives introducing the bill, backers including Deputy Speaker Fonati Koffa, said, “the data is abundant and clear that FGM has enormous psychological, social, and political implications far beyond the painful procedures usually practiced by non-medical personnel and that the evidence is overwhelming that the costs of the traditional practices overweigh the benefits and unenviable discrimination meted out against girls and women.”
But the politicians do not speak with that same force in public. The bill is just the latest in a decade-long effort to ban FGC. The last attempt to make it illegal as part of the Domestic Violence law in 2019 failed under pressure from traditional societies.
Activists are pessimistic that this bill will fare any better than its predecessor. They say the bill is designed to please international donors that are pressuring the government to act. But there is no political will, in the run-up to next year’s election, to actually pass it.
Deputy Speaker Koffa concedes it will be challenging to get the bill passed.
“There is never a wrong time to do the right thing,” he said in a phone interview. “I understand how difficult it’s going to be; yes, the politics is going to play, but eventually, we have to come to the stark reality that this harmful traditional practice, its elimination time has come and we should go ahead and do the elimination now. And I think at the end of the day maybe not this session, because the votes seem to be scarce, I am pretty sure within the next year or so, we will have FGM elimination.”
Even if a bill were passed there is doubt that police and prosecutors would enforce it. Traditional leaders have made it clear they will continue to pressure and threaten. Here in the village of Cotton Tree just outside Gbarnga City traditional chief Richard Gono was just back from a trip to the bush gathering herbs to treat patients at his healing center “Solution Temple” when visited by this reporter. He claims to heal people suffering from epilepsy, stroke, piles, elephantiasis, mental illness, and other diseases, some of which he tells his patients, without any scientific basis, are the result of witchcraft. He says FGC must be protected.
“This tradition started way back at the time some of us were not born,” Gono said. “When tradition is set, it’s set. What your parents had, you want to remove it, where will you be tomorrow?”
Asked about the well documented harms caused to women who have undergone FGC Gono said: “the one that says that the Society has got medical problem on women, I do not have any idea about that.”
“The one that says that the Society has got medical problem on women, I do not have any idea about that.”
But more and more parents do know the harm FGC causes and they are refusing to do it to their daughters. As membership dwindles the Sande have resorted to extreme measures.
“Because these Zoes want to continue getting the financial intake, they now have to conscript these children and extort money from their parents since they know that as long as a child is in the bush, the parents will have to feed them, carry items for their upkeep, and even pay their graduation (release) fees,” said Tamba Johnson, national coordinator of He For She Crusaders Liberia and member of the civil society working group on FGC.
The Constitution of Liberia supersedes traditional law. But when it comes to the issue of Sande even law enforcement officers fear Zoes. Police and the Ministry of Internal Affairs have repeatedly ignored calls for help from parents like Parker. The Sande has been free to terrorize villages across the Central and Western regions where they still hold sway. Sande leaders have been heard bragging about having stopped girls from attending formal schools which Sande regards as a counter to their traditional values.
Chief Gono claims to disapprove of such behavior.
“What I can say is that our friends (other Zoes) who go about catching people children and forcing them into the society is not good, it is spoiling our society name,” he said.
In addition to funding awareness campaigns and pressuring government to pass the anti-FGC law, the international community has tried to give traditional leaders new sources of income.
UNWomen’s “Spotlight Initiative” is helping 300 Zoes from Grand Cape Mount, Montserrado, Lofa, and Nimba engage in activities including farming and small business. It’s providing a savings and loan program, literacy training and is creating four vocational and heritage centers to preserve and promote cultures, customs and traditions, while also acting as resource and training centers and for the Zoes and girls in the communities to gain business skills.
“The Zoes themselves told us that, that they are doing this activity as an economic source of income,” said Deodata Mukazayire, Program Technical Specialist EVAW – Spotlight Initiative, UN Women. “So this program is to ensure that if the Zoes have another source of income, if there is a way to have a place where they can practice their tradition, cultures, customs, and so on, but without engaging in FGM, without making it a secret school, but a public one, we believe that this is going to contribute much to the end of FGM.”
For now the bill is in review by the House of Representatives’ Committee on Internal Affairs, Gender, and Judiciary. The next year will tell if Koffa is right and lawmakers will find the political will to outlaw FGC.
Part one of this series looked at the new bill before the Liberian legislature that would ban female genital cutting.
This series was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the Investigating Liberia project. Funding was provided by the US Embassy in Liberia. The funder had no say in the story’s content.