Liberia: Enact a law banning FGM as a matter of urgency

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26 Jun 2012

27 April 2016 BREAKING: In a major setback to anti-FGM efforts in Liberia, legislators have removed the provision addressing FGM from the proposed domestic violence bill ahead of tomorrow’s debate. Though the provision had its problems, it was the first time the country had introduced legislation to ban FGM. Disturbingly, the domestic violence bill could pass without any mention of FGM, though an estimated 50% of Liberian women and girls have undergone this extreme form of violence. Liberia, Mali and Sierra Leone are the only three West African countries that have yet to criminalize FGM following bans last year in Nigeria and The Gambia.

TAKE ACTION! Throughout her presidency, President Johnson-Sirleaf has strongly declared her commitment to women’s rights and to promoting the health and safety of women and girls. Please join us and our partner, the Women of Liberia Peace Network, in calling for a total ban on FGM in the bill, as required by the Maputo Protocol - the African women’s rights legal framework, which Liberia has ratified. At a time when the Africa-led momentum to end FGM is growing, we can’t go backwards. Please raise your voice today! #EndFGM #LiberiaBanFGM


22 FEBRUARY 2016 UPDATE: President Sirleaf has taken a strong public stance on prioritizing women and children’s health and safety in Liberia, and in 2015,committed to enforcing a ban on female genital mutilation. However, her efforts to enact a strong law against FGM are proving insincere. Currently, the government is proposing to address FGM as part of a domestic violence bill that is extremely weak, has ineffective penalties for perpetrators (counselling and fines determined by the judge) and, in actuality, promotes FGM.

49.8% of women and girls are estimated to have undergone FGM in Liberia. However, the proposed bill only regards FGM as an offence in situations where it is performed on a person under the age of 18, or a person 18 years old or over, without their consent. If passed, the government would effectively negate the criminalization of FGM and provide a legal loophole for parents or legal guardians to grant consent on behalf of their minor daughters. By including consent, the bill legitimizes the practice and leaves girls under the age of 18 -- the age group with the highest risk in Liberia – unprotected.

In Liberia, the Sande female secret society promotes and carries out FGM as part of an initiation rite into womanhood. FGM is still a taboo subject and it is forbidden to talk about secret societies and their practices with non-initiated people. Punishment for violations includes physical abuse, forceful initiation (for non-initiates), and in some cases, death threats. Ruth Berry Peal, who was forcibly-mutilated in 2010, continues to wait for justice. In the three years since the perpetrators in her case were sentenced,  they are yet to be arrested and imprisoned, though the government of Liberia ratified the African Protocol on Women’s Rights, which specifically directs states parties to: ‘prohibit, through legislative measures backed by sanctions, of all forms of female genital mutilation, scarification, medicalisation and para-medicalisation of  female genital mutilation and all other practices in order to eradicate them” and‘protection of women who are at risk of being subjected to harmful practices or all other forms of violence, abuse and intolerance” among others.

25 MARCH 2015 UPDATE: In the two years since the Liberian High Court upheld the decision against the members of the Sande secret society who had forcibly-mutilated Ruth Berry Peal, the assailants have yet to be arrested and imprisoned. Instead, they are residing and working freely in Monrovia and Bomi (Bomi is the same county where Ruth and her family live). Ruth, meanwhile, still suffers from the trauma and continues to receive verbal and physical abuse from her community who are tormenting her for exposing the secrets of their culture. Our partner, Women of Liberia Peace Network (WOLPNET), has raised the failures in the case with Liberia’s Ministry of Justice but no action has been taken.

On a positive note, as a result of an indefinite government ban on Sande School operations to help curb the spread of the Ebola Virus Disease, FGM has reportedly been reduced in Liberia. During a February meeting with WOLPNET, the Traditional Council adopted a resolution pledging to only initiate girls at the age of consent and stopping forceful FGM initiations. However, this still does not go far enough; FGM is a human rights violation that should not be performed on any women or girl regardless of their age or granting of consent. Equality Now continues to advocate for zero tolerance for FGM and system to ban it in Liberia.

President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf also continues to speak out on the issue of violence in Liberia, including FGM. At an international event on gender equality this month, she publicly stated, "too many of our countries have yet to muster the courage to ban the irreparable harm inflicted by genital mutilation on young girls in traditional societies." The Liberian Minister for Gender also spoke on the topic during a radio interview, stating "we are working with our traditional people to see how they can learn from what people have done in other countries that practice similar rituals so that they can now see how they can empower themselves to move away from FGM."

We are hopeful that these types of declarations from the highest levels of the Liberian government will finally result in a law banning FGM. Equality Now and our partners are engaging with policy makers to fulfill on their pledges to adopt a law and to ensure that survivors of FGM such as Ruth are able to access justice and health services. Please renew the call for justice and security for Ruth and her family, and for a law against FGM in Liberia.


MARCH 12, 2013 UPDATE: On 17 January 2013, Ruth Berry Peal's lawyer, Deddeh Wilson, informed Equality Now that she had filed a motion requesting the court to dismiss the defendant’s appeal of their jail sentence for failure to complete the appeal process. On 24 January 2013, the court dismissed the appeal case on grounds that 'the defendants did not file an approved bill of exceptions or did not secure the approval of the trial judge on the purported bill of exceptions.' On 26 February, the court issued a letter commanding the Sheriff of Montserrado to arrest the defendants.

Although Ruth has finally gotten justice for being forcibly mutilated, it has not been easy for her, as she continues to receive threats.  Mrs Speare, director of Women NGO Secretariat Liberia (WONGOSOL), stated that social and cultural circumstances in Liberia do not allow girls and women to oppose FGM or to escape, though girls sometimes resort to running away and hiding due to the lack of laws to protect them from the practice.  Ruth has been advised by the gender ministry to relocate to Monrovia but is reluctant to do so because her husband and children still live in Bomi, Liberia. Therefore, we are calling on the Liberian government to support and protect Ruth, as well as to build on indications made by the Minister for Internal Affairs in 2011 to enact and enforce a law banning FGM as a matter of urgency.


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Ruth Berry Peal with her lawyer
Ruth Berry Peal with her lawyer

In April 2010, Equality Now issued Women’s Action 37.1 highlighting the case of Ruth Berry Peal who was kidnapped and forcibly subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM) by some members of the politically influential Sande female secret society. The Sande society promotes and carries out FGM as part of an initiation rite into womanhood. More than 58.2% of Liberian women have undergone FGM. Ruth filed a lawsuit against the women and, in July 2011, they were found guilty of kidnapping, felonious restraint and theft of property and were sentenced to three years imprisonment. However, the defendants appealed the judgment and were released on bail. The appeal has been pending at the Supreme Court since July 2011 with no hearing date set, reportedly due to a lack of resources allocated to prosecuting this case. Equality Now and our partners are concerned about the delay in hearing this appeal and finalizing the case, especially as the perpetrators remain free on bail.


In June 2011, Equality Now met with the Liberian Minister of Internal Affairs regarding Ruth Berry Peal’s case and ending FGM in Liberia. During the meeting he indicated that he would stop the issuance of FGM permits and would work with the Ministry of Justice to draft a law banning FGM. In November 2011, the Government took steps towards ending FGM by persuading Sande leaders to stop the practice, which is at the core of the female initiation rituals, and a ceremony to mark the event took place in the presence of the Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.  Subsequently the Ministry of Internal Affairs issued a notice to all counties directing that all Sande activities be shut down and underlining that violators would be held liable. While the Ministry’s letter does not categorically state that permits will not be issued to FGM practitioners, our partners confirm that it implies that Sande activities will not be allowed to take place.

While Equality Now and partners welcome these efforts to stop FGM, we are alarmed by the following recent developments:

  • In March 2012, journalist Mae Azango was forced into hiding after publishing a story on FGM. Members of the Sande society have threatened to forcibly subject her to FGM.
  • In May 2012, more than 750 girls, believed to be encouraged by Sande members, underwent FGM in the Nimba County despite the Ministry of Internal Affairs notice to stop Sande activities.

Despite President Sirleaf’s pledge to make women’s rights and health a national priority in Liberia, it is greatly concerning to note the lack of government intervention in the above-mentioned cases, the failure to conclude Ruth Berry Peal’s case, as well as remarks by the Minister of Information in media reports indicating that the government has no plans to end FGM. This lack of a unified stance by government officials undermines the efforts the government is making to end FGM.

Qué puede hacer: 

TAKE ACTION NOW! Please join Equality Now and our Liberian partners, Women of Liberia Peace Network (WOLPNET) and Women NGOs Secretariat of Liberia (WONGOSOL), in calling on Liberian authorities to:

  • Ensure that Ruth Berry Peal’s case is swiftly and justly concluded
  • Ensure the enforcement of  the government’s suspension of Sande FGM activities
  • Honor Liberia’s international and regional human rights commitments by enacting and enforcing comprehensive legislation against FGM, as well as supporting educational outreach to relevant communities and local chiefs on the harms of FGM

Letters should go to:

H.E. Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf    
P.O. Box 9001
Capitol Hill, Monrovia
Republic of Liberia
Tel: +231 644 4696 

Hon. Cllr. Benedict F. Sannoh
Minister of Justice
P.O. Box  0123
Ashmun Street   
Republic of Liberia
Tel: +231 669 7205

Hon Julia Duncan Cassell
Minister for Gender and Development
P.O. Box 10-1375
110 UN Drive & Gurley Street
1000 Monrovia 10
Republic of Liberia
Tel: +231 651 6434  

Hon Dr. Henrique Tokpah
Minister of Internal Affairs
Executive Mansion Ground
Republic of Liberia
Tel: +231 651 3358

Hon. Alex J. Tyler
House of Representatives
Cell: +231-886-511-688

Senator Armah Zolu Jallah
House of Senate
Cell: +231-886-518-595

With a copy to: Special Assistant Mr. Jefferson F. Cooper


Dear [   ]

I am deeply concerned by Liberia’s failure to address FGM in the proposed 2016 Domestic Violence Bill. FGM is an extreme form of physical and psychological abuse that can even result in death. Liberia, Mali and Sierra Leone are the only three West African countries that have yet to criminalize FGM.

Liberia has ratified several regional and international human rights instruments that call for states to ban FGM through strong legislation, awareness raising and support for its victims. President Sirleaf has also repeatedly pledged to introduce a law banning the practice before the end of her tenure. I therefore urge you to enact legislation that protects the human rights of women and girls from FGM regardless of consent, and that places strong penalties on perpetrators. The legislation should also ensure that survivors, such as Ruth Berry Peal, who was kidnapped and forcibly subjected to FGM in Bomi County, are able to access justice and health services. I thank you for your attention.

I thank you for your attention.