Liberia: FGM Still A Major Cause of Poor School Enrollment in Todee Despite Three-Year Ban
TODEE DISTRICT – The paramount chief of Todee District, Monsterrado County has revealed that girls under the ages of 11 to 14 years are under a barrage of societal pressures to undergo Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), and it’s having a devastating impact on their education.
Report by Garmah Lomo, Contributor
FGM is a human rights abuse that continues to affect the lives of millions of women and girls around the world. The World Bank estimates that as of 2020, Liberia had a prevalence rate of 31.8%. In Liberia, FGM is deeply entrenched within the culture and is performed by traditional leaders, the zoes, as a rite of passage into womanhood and is part of an initiation into the powerful secret society – the Sande – which is run by women. The zoes are so powerful that membership is necessary for social, economic, or political influence in villages in around two-thirds of the country. Non-members could be kidnapped and forced to undergo FGM for discussing Sande issues, breaking Sande law, or passing close to the Sande bush schools.
Stephen Goba, who supported FGM over the years, said he stopped the traditional practice due to the rise in the Sande and Poro schools during instructional time.
Describing the situation as alarming, Goba said. “The enrollment of students at almost all of the schools in Todee District has dropped due to FGM practice. If we can’t protect our young ones and discourage the practice of FGM in Todee most of the schools will be empty.”
Those operating the Sande and Poro schools have vowed not to disengage from the practice because they were issued licenses to operate, Goba said.
“The reported action by the Ministry of Internal Affairs to issue licenses to Zoes to carry on FGM practice when the same ministry pronounced that no Sande and Poro society schools should operate during academic school time is a double standard,” he said
Goba has, meanwhile, called on the Ministry of Internal Affairs to promptly investigate the situation before it gets out of control.
For his part, the Statutory Superintendent of Todee District, John Tucker, also confirmed that cultural practices are being carried out across the district.
Superintendent Tucker said culture is meant for everyone, but the rights of others should be respected, blaming authorities at the Ministry of Internal Affairs for reportedly not enforcing the three-year ban placed on the practices of FGM.
Meanwhile, the District Education Officer of Kongbah District, Gbapolu County, Amos K. Karneh, also disclosed that FGM practices have affected his district, saying that despite a Memorandum of Understanding signed between the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Education Ministry in 2021 that no bush school or Sande society operation should operate while academic schools are in session, FGM practices are still ongoing during school sessions.
“Just before this semester exam, I have observed a huge dropout of girls from schools due to FGM practices being carried out and currently those public schools are now being attended by boys only,” he said.
“When I took over last March, I carried out an awareness on the importance of girls education in my district and invited parents of students, but sadly, parents still allow their children to drop out of school for Sande school which has absolutely no benefit to the future of their children.”
“I have arranged a meeting concerning FGM practices with traditional leaders in the district and we hope they will understand the importance of education.”
Also speaking on the matter, Gender Minister Piso Saydee Tarr expressed regrets over the matter FGM issues are being handled despite a ban being placed early this year.
In February 2022, the head of the Traditional Council of Liberia, Chief Zanzan Karwor announced a three-year ban on FGM. This bold step is a positive stride toward the protection of women’s and girls’ rights in the country, and we commend the Government of Liberia for this. However, without the existence of a law criminalizing the practice of FGM in Liberia, the protection of women’s and girls’ rights remains a huge concern.
In 2018, Liberia outlawed FGM for one year through Executive Order No 92 on Domestic Violence. This Order only prohibited performing FGM on a girl under 18 years and stipulated punishment for people who violated the order. However, the order was not effectively implemented since it was not publicized by the government and most Liberians were unaware of its existence. In some other instances, the National Traditional Council, in coordination with the government, suspended the Sande bushes where FGM is practiced, the most recent being during Covid. Still, these bans have never led to long-term or permanent action against FGM.