Liberia made history as the first African country to elect a female leader, but strong taboos make it one of the hardest countries to crack when it comes to tackling female genital mutilation (FGM).
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work on women’s rights, has said little on the subject. But she is in an awkward position.
FGM, an ancient ritual, is carried out in Liberia during traditional initiation ceremonies in bush schools, overseen by an immensely powerful women’s secret society called the Sande.
The girls involved are sworn to secrecy and told that they or a member of their family will die if they reveal what happens.
“Liberia is very tricky,” said Grace Uwizeye, FGM programme officer at rights group Equality Now. “The secret society makes it very difficult to penetrate or even to start talking about FGM because people are just scared. You have to make sure people understand it’s OK to talk about FGM.”
Every year thousands of girls leave their homes to attend the forest camps aimed at preparing them for marriage. They learn everything from social etiquette, good morals, domestic skills and correct sexual comportment to how to look after their future home and husband.
It is during this rite of passage that girls are subjected to FGM in which the clitoris and labia are cut. The procedure is said to prevent promiscuity and improve fertility, but it can prove fatal.
“Young girls can die from bleeding,” said Marian Gonyor, acting executive director of Women of Liberia Peace Network (WOLPNET), which is trying to eradicate FGM. “Conditions in the bush are unhealthy and cutting is often done with unsterilised razor blades or knives which are used on many girls.”
Health problems caused by FGM include haemorrhages, cysts, chronic infections, psychological trauma and childbirth complications.
Campaigners like Gonyor are working on the ground to persuade Sande leaders, known as zoes, to abandon FGM, while simultaneously lobbying the government to pass a law banning it.
“We have a very good culture and very good traditions in Liberia, but we don’t want these harmful traditional practices like forced marriages and FGM – they are a very bad part of our culture and need to be removed,” said Gonyor, speaking by phone from the Liberian capital Monrovia.
Liberia is one of 27 African countries where FGM is prevalent, and most have now banned the practice. Gonyor is hopeful that Liberia could adopt such a law in three to four years.
On Thursday, Johnson Sirleaf is expected to make a proclamation to mark International Day of Zero Tolerance of FGM. There will also be a radio talk show and newspaper articles on the issue.
These are significant signs of change in a country where public discussion of FGM has traditionally been taboo. Nonetheless, campaigners and journalists are still threatened for speaking about it.
“Campaigners have received death threats and some have even had their houses burnt down because of their work. Even journalists have been threatened and some have actually stopped talking on FGM. Some have gone into hiding,” said Equality Now’s Uwizeye, speaking from the Kenyan capital Nairobi.