Traditional Leaders Want Pay to Stop Genital Mutilation

Massa Kandakia, one of the leading female traditional leaders in Montserrado county has threatened that female genital mutilation will continue until they are paid to stop the traditional practice.

Massa Kandakai’s remark is said to be in total disregard to a three-year ban by the government and Traditional Council of Liberia intended to slow down the cultural practice that many consider harmful. 

Kandakai believes that female genital mutilation is a source of livelihood.

“Only paying ‘Zoes’ (female traditional leaders) regularly will put stop to female genital mutilation or hold the moratorium posted on the Sande Bush activities,” Kandakia said. 

 “I have two hundred proper Zoes in Montserrado alone, with about 2,000 across the country, how do they expect us to live when the Government is not living by their promises to us,” Kandakai emphasized. 

She further intoned that all these efforts by the government and partners to end FGM will not materialize until they consider payment of Zoes, saying, “Sande schools are not only traditional but have economic benefits which they are surviving on.”

The issue of FGM, which is a procedure where the female genitals are cut, or changed, is heavily entrenched in Liberian culture, dating back many centuries. Strong taboos surrounding the practice and associated Sande secret societies make tackling the practice challenging. 

It is usually carried out on young girls between infancy and the age of 15, most commonly before puberty starts, and is painful — leading to serious harm to the health of women and girls as well as causing long-term problems with sex, childbirth, and mental health, according to the World Health Organization.

Liberia remains one of the three West African countries that do not have a law criminalizing FGM despite having signed and ratified regional and international human rights instruments condemning the practice as a human rights violation, including the Maputo Protocol. 

Half of the Liberian women have been subjected to FGM, and four in 10 support the practice in a country where it is carried out by all but a few tribes, and by both Muslim and Christian communities, according to the U.N. children’s agency (UNICEF).

On the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation in 2012, Chief Zanzan Karwor who is the leader of Liberia’s National Traditional Council expressed frustration, rebuking international groups that have sought to abolish female genital mutilation in Liberia.

He believes that FGM prepares young women to become good wives. Despite pushback, the pressure to end female genital mutilation in Liberia continues. Willamette E. Saydee Tarr, the gender, children, and social protection minister in Liberia, claims that plans are being pursued to make FGM permanently illegal, but since then, the practice is still ongoing.

On her last day in office in 2018, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf signed an executive order on the Domestic Violence bill to ban FGM on girls under 18 years old. However, the ban expired in February 2019. 

Additionally, the punishments included rehabilitation and fines which are determined on a case-by-case basis — none of which deterred practicing communities. Traditional leaders have significant power and influence over the Liberian community and often over policymakers. Once girls reach age 18, they will face immense pressure to undergo FGM to remain in the community.

The temporary ban on FGM was not as effective as initially anticipated during its one-year existence as a law. This was mainly due to a lack of knowledge on the existence of the ban and a lack of coordinated multi-sectoral implementation by state agencies. Even with the existence of the Executive Order, the number of Sande bushes in Liberia has increased with the practice now extending to 11 counties from the previous 10.

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