Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), otherwise known as Female Circumcision, is an age-old cultural practice that is carried out in many African countries. Here in Liberia, it is done by nearly 75% of the 16 tribes of the country. The act itself involves the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia. FGM has no medical benefits and medical science has proven that this practice has far-reaching health implications. Some of these include severe bleeding and problems urinating, pain and difficulty having sex, repeated infection which can lead to infertility, cysts and abscesses, as well as psychological disorders.
By Kenneth G. Harding, Contributing Writer
The issue of FGM has been addressed at so many international forums at the level of the United Nations and other international organizations to make clarion calls for those involved to put an end to this practice. Unfortunately for my country Liberia, the more the calls are made, the more entrenched the practice becomes. The reason advanced by those doing it is that it is part of their culture; therefore, and it must be upheld at all costs. The question that is worth asking is, is the practice of FGM cultural as has been claimed by its practitioners? I would answer this question with a resounding NO.
The fact of the matter is the practitioners of FGM are only using culture as a guise, but the thing has become a very big business. The cost of admission for a single girl child in the Sande Bush far exceeds the cost of registration for an upper-level primary school student in a public school. Apart from the money that is paid, each initiate must also carry rice and other edible items that go along with the rice because they must be fed for the duration of their stay in the bush school. The more initiates enrolled in the bush school, the more money the Zoes and the traditional leaders get. I have even learned that some higher ups from the Ministry of Internal Affairs often go to places where these festivities are held to receive their brown envelopes.
Politicians on the other hand, have turned a blind eye to this practice because they want to continue to enjoy the confidence of the local people. The legislators must be re-elected, and the county administrators must maintain their status quo. This has given the traditional leaders the leverage to do whatever they want. I was not surprised when a group of traditional leaders from one county in Western Liberia came out to openly reject the three-year moratorium placed on the bush school. They cited their culture as the reason for doing so.
If it, had it been some pressure group that was voicing its rejection of some government policy, government’s response to that would have been quick and decisive. When it comes to the issue of FGM, it is business as usual.
Despite all these, the Government of Liberia is a signatory to several International Human Rights instruments including the Convention on the Rights of the Child and those dealing with Reproductive Health Rights. Liberia is also a founding member of the United Nations. Instead of being in the forefront in the cause for the eradication of FGM, the Government of Liberia has decided to compromise the health of its own children for political interests.
Can you imagine, some of the girls that are enrolled into these bush schools are as young as six years old? I recall when I was a classroom teacher; one of my female students told me that she was about six to seven years when she was admitted into the bush school. And she said further that if she were old enough to decide for herself, she would never have gone there. She said also that she regretted why her parents took her there in the very first place.
What is even more astonishing is the practice of abducting and forcibly circumcising girls and women. Take the case of the news story published in the October 19th edition of the FrontPageAfrica newspaper, where an 11-year-old girl was abducted, chained, and circumcised. Had she not been rescued and rushed to the hospital in time, she probably would have died. This is barbarism to the highest order. For God’s sake, we live in a civilized world, and if we in Liberia claim to be a part of that civilized world then it is prudent that we think and behave like civilized people.
I would like to conclude this article with the following recommendations:
That the Zoe and all those responsible for the abduction and circumcision of the 11-year-old child be arrested, tried and made to serve a term in jail.
That the moratorium placed on the bush schools be enforced to the letter. And anyone violating said moratorium be arrested, tried in court and made to serve a term in jail or pay a huge fine.
At the end of the three-year moratorium the Government and its corresponding stake holders should have a conference to review the terms and conditions of the bush schools (Sande and Poro). At the end of the conference the issue of genital cutting and marking or piercing of the skin should be abolished and may be replaced by some other ritual such as the killing of cow or some domesticated animal.
The practice of admitting minors into the bush school should be abolished. Five- or six-year-old kids are too young to understand the inner workings of their culture.
Only adults from 18 years and above should be admitted. People being admitted at this age will fully understand and appreciate the importance of the bush school and would want to even go to the extent of contributing to its sustenance.
Admission into the bush school should not be compulsory, but by choice.
About the author:
Kenneth G. Harding is a former employee of the Ministry of Education. He also worked with several international NGOs including World Vision Liberia, Creative Associates International Incorporated, Concern Worldwide and Research Triangle Institute.