In January this year Ruth Berry Peal and her family thought their three year ordeal was over. The Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that made the Bomi mother-of-eight the first woman in Liberia to win a conviction for forceful initiation into the Sande society. Three months later Berry Peal is still separated from her family, suffering continuing physical injuries and living in fear for her life. Despite the court ruling that her attackers should serve three years in jail, they remain free.
See original piece in FrontPage Africa here.
In fact it has been Berry Peal and her family who have been jailed, beaten and harassed.
“Right now I have no home because I can’t go back to Bomi they will find way to jail me again,” says Berry Peal in an interview in the Liberia slum where she has taken temporary refuge with the help of Women NGO Secretariat Liberia.
Anti-FGC activists are now demanding the government step in to protect Berry Peal and make a more serious effort to enforce the ban on Sande activities it announced last year.
“A person should give consent before going to the Sande,” says Nelly Cooper, President of West Point Women Group. “Ruth has been incredibly brave. Her case means the government has recognized that the Sande can’t force people. Now she should be allowed to go home and put her life together.”
The case is now getting international attention and brings more unwelcome heat on the government over FGC (also known as female genital mutilation or FGM). The government faced international pressure to do more to stop female genital cutting after FrontPage Africa journalist Mae Azango was forced into hiding for her piece on female genital cutting in March 2012. Soon afte the government announced it had suspended Sande activities and threatened to prosecute anyone who initiated anyone below the age of consent or against her will. But numerous cases have been documented since including 750 in Nimba County.
“The lack of proper engagement on the issue of FGM is of concern given that Nobel Peace Prize-winning President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has already pledged to make women’s rights and health a national priority in Liberia,” says Efua Dorkenoo, Advocacy Director of Equality Now’s FGM Program. “FGM continues to be a vote-catcher and the issue has not been directly confronted. It is clear that only the government can effectively take on leaders of the Sande, since even grassroots organizations are too scared to deal with them.”
Berry Peal’s husband and 8 children remain in Bomi struggling to make ends meet without her income from a shop she ran there. He has been warned that his job is threatened because the couple has gone against the local Gola culture. Berry Peal suffers from hand and eye injuries she received when local chief Gbally Gray ordered her to be jailed in January. She spent eight days there before WONGOSOL paid $US500 to free her.
Ruth is worried the chief will take away her land because the lot is on the road. It took time for her to agree to an interview. Each time she has spoken to the media, she has been attacked again.
The court ruled the two perpetrators Rose Kerkulah and Menma Kanneh, be arrested and serve three years in jail. FrontPage Africa has seen a copy of the arrest order. But police spokesman Sam Collins denies the court ever ordered the police to arrest the women.
“We are not aware of an arrest warrant for the two persons in question,” he said. “If it is issued the police will execute.”
Ruth’s case began when she had an argument with the two local women in 2010. Ruth is Kru, a tribe that does not practice Sande. The women accused her of insulting Sande. They broke into her house at 6 one morning after her husband had left. They took her nursing twins from her and carried them out the door.
“Before I ask what happen they grasped me, tied me with ropes and started beating and dragging me. That how they carry me in the bush. “
The women drugged Ruth, held her down and savagely sliced her.
“They were vex plenty them women over me. They did not do it the right way they can do other people. They wanted to punish me. Some people holding my foot, others holding my hand. I went off. When I get up to peepee I started feeling heavy pain. The peepee was burning more than pepper.”
Ruth was held for 6 weeks. She and her young babies had to sleep in a hut made of palm thatches leaving them at the mercy of the heavy down pull in the tropical rain forest. She suffered shock, blood loss and infection and was worried they would all get sick with malaria from the many mosquitoes.
“I get sick with pneumonia,” she says. “My twin were also sick. When I came back I was in Redemption hospital for one month.”
But the punishment for Ruth did not end there. When she and her sons asked for property that was stolen from their house the local police threw them in jail. When she won the court case in January she was thrown in jail again.
For this reason she has spent most of her time seeking refuge in Monrovia separated from her family.
It was not supposed to be like this, says Ruth. “If this thing was not going to happen to me my life was going to be all right. Time like this I will be doing my business and be with my husband and my children.”
“Ruth is very brave,” says H. Dedeh Wilson, the lawyer who represented Ruth. “She was just tired with the disadvantage. The whole surrounding story was like people picking at her and using the whole thing about Sande society to get at her.” Wilson was initially reluctant to take on such a daunting case, but Ruth was determined. “She was at my door every day. She was humiliated. And she felt the perpetrators should not go scot free. So she came seeking her rights. She wanted justice to be done.”
Deddeh warned Ruth it would be a long road fighting powerful forces. But Berry Peal was adamant.
“I went to court because I wanted justice,” said Ruth. She said she knows of other women who have been cut against their will and wanted it to end. “They (the perpetrators) think nothing will happen to them.”
The case was made more difficult by the fact that Liberia, unlike many other African countries, has no specific law against FGC. In June 2011 Minister of Internal Affairs Blamo Nelson told anti-FGC campaigners that government would draft a law banning FGC. Until now that has not happened. Deddeh filed a lawsuit agsint the women for kidnapping, restraint and theft.
Her final court victory was a cause for celebration among anti-FGC groups. “We danced all over the place,” says Nelly Cooper. “At least we were able to get justice for all the women who suffered forceful initiation. It means we have gone a step forward in this whole thing.”
For Ruth at least it appears there is still a long way to go.
Tecee Boley is a fellow of New Narratives, a media development NGO that supports leading independent media in Africa.