Liberia: Woman, 25, Forcefully Taken to Sande Bush for Genital Mutilation

By Bette Johnson Mbayo – Front Page Africa

(This article was originally published by Front Page Africa)

Bong County – Sarah (not her real name), 25, has the rest of her life to live with a scar on her genitals. Her maternal relatives compelled her to join the Sande bush, an incident she recalls vividly.

“On Decoration Day, (the Liberian equivalent to U.S. Memorial Day) I was attacked by a group of women. They jumped on me and carried me to their society bush. I was crying for help but it was like no one was there to help me,” she said.  Sarah and her family had gone to Bong to memorialize fallen relatives when the incident occurred.  She entered the Sande Bush for Female Genital Mutilation on March 13th and left on April 1, 2019. FGM is the ritual cutting or removal of some or all external female genitalia, a practice observed throughout Liberia.  Sarah cannot recall how the work was done by the traditional leaders but noticed the mark after she had awakened.  “I was not normal when I was taken there and they did everything they wanted to do without my consent because I was not myself, all I know I saw myself with a cut clitoris,” she said.

Now she is out and blames her family for allowing her to feel abnormal like a part is missing.  “I am not feeling fine about it because I feel that I am not normal. It’s like a part of me is missing. I blame my mother’s family,” she narrates.  All she recalled five years ago is that she heard her family discussing that every woman in their family must go to the Sande Bush because it is a tradition to be successful in their career and be a good wife to their partner.  “They said it is their tradition, according to them, if you don’t join, it will be difficult for you to get job, husband.”  Sarah had no knowledge of society but heard about the activities in the bush. Now, she has returned and is willing to tell the world how the bush operates.  “They have leaves that can be used after cutting, at times they will have tablets if the pain is severe but most often it’s the leaf.”

According to her, there is no different training as her family said.  “They only say we should respect older people but no other special training,” she said. “When I became normal what I saw them doing was for them to call us out in the morning and evening to sing and clap.”  Then came graduation day, Sarah and several others were attired and colored with white chalks and wrapped with white cloth tied around their bodies.  “The last day, they platted our hair and took us to the water side to bath us and later brought us back to dress us. That was the graduation day; I was just there but I wasn’t happy but I had to follow their instructions,” she said.  Since Sarah returned from the Bush, washing her private part looks so different and comfortable.  While in the Bush, Sarah and other girls slept on a rag in the hut. The Bush is three hours far from the road in Suacoco, a city in Bong County.  During her stay, she said there was only one lady responsible to cut the girls and the others sang as the cutting was done.  There were five girls and a minor assuming 5 years who graduated along with them.  Until now, she has not disclosed what occurred in Bong to her partner but he is only aware that she was still with family members for Decoration Day.  “Right now, I have not told my boyfriend about it. Maybe I will inform him when I overcome the trauma.”

She said she has no plans to take legal actions against her family after they have inflicted scars on her but only needs relocation.  “I don’t want to take any action against them. I just decided to leave their home. I am looking for a place to go, maybe in time, they will say sorry – fine, but if not, I will just leave them alone,” she said.  Sarah narrated that the creek was the only source for drinking; something she said was unhealthy for the girls.  “We used to drink from the creek, at times people used to go for water but sometimes we used to go ourselves.”  Her family paid L$3000 (Liberian Dollars) an equivalent of ($17.50 US) per person during graduation.

She said, “FGM is not good because some of the materials they used although I didn’t see it because my face was covered but I am not sure they can change some of the things.”  Sarah narrated that all the circumcision can be done within a day when you are not aware.  “They can do everything the same day but no one can be there. They can lay you down.”  She has no idea what will happen in the next years as it relates to medical complications.  Currently, she has a pain that is not continuous but wants medication in spite of pain, “the pain is off and on, right now it has subsided but I want better treatment to be active as I used to be.  “I am not happy because I feel that a part of me is missing.”

When she first entered, Sarah was among two which brought the number of girls to three, but the day they graduated a new batch of eight girls entered.  Sarah wants the government to put a halt to FGM on grounds that it is against human rights.  “And they are forcing people against their will. If you consent, that’s fine because the person chooses what they want.”  She has no idea if the community is aware but said since she returned, women have had small groupings but split-up when she shows up.  “I am always by myself because people might bring it up and they (the Zoes) can tell you that if you say what happened, you will die.”

Sarah urged parents to allow their children to decide if they want to be a part of it or not rather than force them.  Currently, she has been supported by Naomi Tulay Solanke, Executive Director of Community Health initiative who said, it is frustrating that since the Liberian Government through the Ministry of Gender, Children Social protection, and Independent Human Rights Commission contacted Sarah but they have failed to support her.  According to Naomi, Sarah told her that she does not feel safe in Liberia because everything turns around in the twinkle of an eye.  Ms. Solanke has helped Sarah with psychological counseling, “She has seen the harsh reality face to face and the only help we can give is counseling.”

Dr. John Mulbah, one of Liberia’s leading Gynecologist, alarmed in late 2018 that there was an increased in medical complications for women who are mutilated or go through cutting in the Sande Bush.  He said Fistula is one of the many complications because those carrying out FGM are not familiar with the parts of a woman’s body.  “They do not necessarily know the part to cut because they don’t know the anatomy of the woman, so sometimes while cutting, they end up cutting the blood vessels,” he said.  He spoke at the Liberia Feminist Forum working session on the theme “Legal Analysis of Proposed Domestic Violence and Anti FGM bill” on Wednesday in Monrovia.  According to Dr. Mulbah, a “community chain” is the only way to end FGM because many traditional leaders depend on the act to survive.

Counsellor Abla Williams of the Association of Female Lawyers of Liberia (AFELL) and Liberia Feminist Forum (LFF) said it is preferable for people to consent before the act is committed instead of parents compelling children.  Williams said Liberia is a signatory to many laws that abolished FGM but it is still being practiced.  She added that the forum is aimed at reviewing some terminology in the proposed bill which is not stated clearly.  “We are in a fight with the political norms and political will, so we have to do thorough research and get people who have actually had the experience to look at the bill before presenting to the Legislature,” said Counsellor Williams.  Tonieh Tarlery-Wiles of the Independent National Commission on Human Rights disclosed that there are several FGM cases and the commission is working with the complainant and accused.  “We are saying that parents should not compel their kids to be mutilated and be tortured. We have to uphold the international protocols, we should not hide behind cultural harmful practices,” she said. 

Equality Now, an international organization, recently called on President George M. Weah, Vice President Jewel Howard Taylor and the 54th Legislature to enact and enforce a permanent and comprehensive law against the practice of FGM in Liberia.  The call was made on this year’s International Women’s Day in March, and came after the one-year ban on FGM that was put in place by former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf through Executive Order 92. This ban came to an end on January 19th, 2019.  While expressing concern over the lack of a strong anti-FGM law, Equality Now’s Programme Officer of End Harmful Practices, Felister Gitonga pointed out that Liberia was bound by the regional and international human rights instruments that it had ratified.  She added that it was important for the West African nation to legislate its own law prohibiting the practice in the shortest time possible. “Presently, more than half of Liberian women are living with the consequences of the cut and many more are at risk. As it is, Liberia remains one of the three West African countries that do not have a law criminalizing FGM,” she said.  The Traditional Council of Chiefs and Elders also agreed to work with advocates and put an end to FGM, but they want more time for consultations with traditional communities.  Making the concession in February at programs marking the observance of the International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM, Chief Momo Kiazolu lauded anti-FGM groups for reaching out and including them in the process.

Chief Kiazolu, who spoke on behalf of his boss Chief Zanzan Karwor, the head of the Traditional Council of Chiefs and Elders said, traditional leaders’ exclusion from the awareness of FGM created the delay in ending the menace.  Now that they have been recognized, he assured that the “harmful” traditional practice will be curbed, based on rigorous consultation across the country.  “When they started this process of FGM, they did not start with the traditional people but went ahead and were doing their own thing, but they were wasting their time,” he said.  “We are part of the global community; we cannot say no to them if they say yes because we will not stand. So, we are already in the process.  My Chief said I should tell you to just give us a small break. This thing belongs to people and we have to go and consult with them first from village to village and town to town.” 

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