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How Many Girls Must Die Before Liberia Stops FGM?

On 31 March 2017, Zaye Doe, a sixteen-year-old girl died during forced Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Liberia’s Tappita area.  The mutilation was carried out on Zaye and her friend by members of the influential women’s secret society known as the Sande Society.

These secret societies, which are found in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and the Ivory Coast, train girls to become women at Sande “bush” schools. The forced mutilation was punishment for Zaye and her friend allegedly using “abusive language” during an argument.  According to the rules of their community, abusive language is prohibited.

The girls were secretly taken into the bush, where the Zoe (the traditional leader in the women’s secret society) in charge, Power Daywoe, handed down the punishment. Consequently, Zaye died. 

Undeterred, the Zoes further subjected 25 more girls to FGM the next month.

Although the parents filed a lawsuit against the lead Zoe and her three associates, the family is under pressure from them to withdraw the case and settle it in the traditional way. It is important to note that, in 2012, the Liberia Ministry of internal affairs issued a ban on Sande Secret Society activities and suspended all Zoe licenses to stop them from operating the Sande Bush schools. Despite the ban, however, the traditional leaders continue their activities, including performing FGM.

This is not the first case of forced FGM. In January 2010, Ruth Berry Peal had an argument with two women and was forcibly taken from her home to the bush where she was subjected to forced FGM and threatened with death if she disclosed what she underwent. The case went to court and the perpetrators were sentenced to two years imprisonment. However, government authorities have yet to arrest them, demonstrating their tacit support for the continuation of FGM. This sends a damaging message that the lives of Liberian girls and women are not worth saving from this extreme violation of their human rights. Liberia, Mali, and Sierra Leone are the only West African countries that have not criminalized FGM.

The Liberian Constitution guarantees the rights of life, liberty, and security of person for all. Liberia has also signed on to a number of international and regional human rights conventions and protocols that call for women and girls to be protected from FGM. This includes the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), and the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol). The Protocol specifically calls on states parties to take legislative measures to ban all forms of FGM (Article 5).

Significantly, in examining Liberia’s report in 2014, the CEDAW Committee urged the government “to criminalize female genital mutilation in the Children Law and introduce sanctions commensurate with the crime to ensure that the practice is prohibited in all circumstances and will be eradicated.”  It also requested that Liberia “remove the element of consent from the domestic violence bill and ensure that the bill is used to prosecute and adequately punish perpetrators of FGM.”

The Committee also encouraged Liberia to “extend and accelerate the implementation of programs designed to sensitize and provide alternate sources of income for those who perform FGM” and to “strengthen its awareness-raising and educational efforts, targeted at both women and men, including government officials at all levels, chiefs, and other traditional and community leaders…to eliminate the practice of female genital mutilation and its underlying cultural justification.”

Bolstering this, at an international event on gender equality in 2015, President Johnson-Sirleaf publicly stated that “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”. However, to date, no action has been taken to ban FGM in Liberia. Over 58% of Liberian women have undergone FGM

Things appeared to be changing in mid-2015 when in response to many years of international and national pressure, a domestic violence bill was finally introduced in Liberia to strengthen legislation on various forms of violence against women and girls – including, for the first time, a ban on FGM. However, the bill only regarded FGM as an offense 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. This would effectively provide a legal loophole for parents or legal guardians to grant “consent” on behalf of their daughters, leaving those most at risk unprotected. They also included ineffective penalties for perpetrators, where counseling and fines could be arbitrarily determined by a judge. Ultimately, however, the bill passed without including any ban on FGM

Members of practicing communities have little choice but to be forced or coerced into this harmful practice to be considered full members of their community. And even women from non-practicing communities, such as in Ruth Berry Peale’s case, are at risk.

We can’t give up. Despite its stated commitment to end FGM, Liberian women and girls continue to suffer while their government does nothing. Please join Equality Now and Women Solidarity Inc. (WOSI) in renewing the call on the Liberian government to honor its Constitution and international and regional human rights commitments to protect women and girls’ rights!