Critics say girls as young as 2 are cut in traditional initiation ceremonies

Monrovia – Traditional leaders and government ministers have revealed a secret agreement to shut down the activities of Liberia’s secret women’s society, the Sande, for an indefinite period. The deal will see all Sande land turned over to the leaders of the Poro men’s society.

A ceremony handing over the land from the women to the men took place at the funeral services of Chief Jallah Lone, held in Gbarnga Bong County on November 23-24. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was present, as were many of Liberia’s most powerful spiritual leaders.

“Men zoes, women zoes in the 10 counties were present, and it was unanimously agreed that the land be turned over to the men to continue their practices,” confirmed William Jallah, Director for Custom and Culture Affairs at the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

In a letter dated December 9, 2011 and sent to the district superintendents of the 10 counties where Sande is practiced in Liberia, as well as to the traditional zoes, the Ministry of Internal Affairs requested that all Sande activities be shut down by December 31, 2011 to allow the men to practice.  The Poro would take over effective January 2012.

This means that the women must cease the practice of the Sande culture – including stopping the initiation ritual of female genital cutting or FGC – and shut down the bush schools as long as their husbands and fathers continue to practice. The Ministry of Internal Affairs is no longer issuing licenses for the Sande.  There is no set date for Sande to resume.

“There is no definite time,” said Joseph Jangar, Assistant Minister for Culture at the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the man who wrote the December 9 letter. “It could last for three years, four years, 10 years.”

The revelations by government ministers for Culture, Gender and traditional leaders come in the wake of reporting by FrontPageAfrica’s Mae Azango on female genital cutting, which created an uproar in Liberia.

Azango’s story, which spelled out the health risks suffered by many women who have had their clitoris removed in Sande bush initiation ceremonies, prompted numerous threats to herself, her family, her sources and FPA. The threats made international headlines when the Committee to Protect Journalists and Amnesty International called on government and police to ensure her safety. Azango has been in hiding ever since the report.

At the same time as the announcement that traditional leaders have shut down Sande activities, the Minister of Gender and Development Julia Duncan-Cassell confirmed government has begun a series of consultative meetings in the 10 counties where Sande bush activities occur.

Duncan-Cassell said the government is determined to stamp out genital cutting because it violates international protocols to which Liberia has signed up, which say cutting of underage girls is a human rights violation. Liberia’s government faces intense international pressure to end the practice. But Duncan-Cassell said a government ban will do nothing but drive the process underground.

“We have found out that in order for people to stop something, you have to give them something in place of that,” she said. “So that is where we come in now, is working along with them. So we are going to go from county to county, and ask them, ‘look, if we want them to do this, what are we going to give them in place of that?’ Because for some of them, it’s their livelihood. For some of them, it’s just getting together. But we are saying, don’t use our young girls for this.”

Traditional female high priest Mama Tormah, commonly called the Chief Zoe for Women, owned traditional Sande groves where women were initiated into the secret society. She said her colleagues have agreed to halt Sande practice as the government has requested, but pointed out they need an alternative.

“There should be something for the zoes to do before stopping them from doing what they do,” Tormah said in an interview with reporters on her porch in Parker Corner, Brewerville.  “Show the person what will they do, what will they be depending on. If you take cola from me, you give me red palm nut, then I will be encouraged,” she said.

Government ministers are promising skills training in economic empowerment activities such as tie-dying, soap-making and weaving throughout the communities as a means of providing Sande leaders with another source of income and fulfillment.

Mama Tormah had her Sande bush school closed down by the government for an earlier unrelated violation. Since then, she built a formal school on the grounds as well as a women’s center to help women who owned Sande groves make traditional cloth to earn some money.  But Tormah said the Sande faithful need something more.

“We know the country has changed. We are in modern days. So, we are changing the system small small until we reach to the end,” said Tormah. “But it can’t be the way they want it to happen, as quickly as they want it to happen. We’re not ready for people to say, ‘No more Sande’. We can’t do that. You will damage the country.”

Some of the Sande cultural practices have come under fire for damaging the health and educational progress of our country’s girls.  In particular, the controversial procedure of FGC, which is tied to the Sande society in Liberia, has been a lightning rod, and the debate is poised to continue in view of the recent developments uncovered by FPA.

Minister Duncan-Cassell claimed female circumcision had all but ceased in seven of the 10 counties that practice it, while the other three counties are being asked to comply.  That claim could not be immediately confirmed. “Government is saying, ‘This needs to stop’, stated Duncan-Cassell. “The process is on in making sure that it is stopped.”

Human rights activists contacted about the shutdown were skeptical about the government’s willingness to carry this through. Many influential members of government are deeply connected to tribal areas. If traditional leaders resist, they said, government may not have the ability to carry it through. But, they acknowledged, as this effort appears led by traditional leaders, it may have a chance.

Assistant Minister Jangar admitted there has been resistance, especially in Bomi and Montserrado counties, two areas which he calls “bottlenecks.” Even though this apparent shutdown is indefinite, Jangar said it is now a policy, and the Ministry of Internal Affairs will penalize and fine anyone found to be violating it.

“The women will not practice now, and we are going to enforce that by going for inspections to see where there are Sande bushes, and we will tell them to close them down immediately,” Jangar said. But many Liberians are still unaware of this news about an indefinite shutdown of a culture that has been passed down for generations and a way of life for many here.

The issue of Sande is a culturally sensitive one in Liberia, and even President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has not come out with a definite stance on the issue. Since Azango’s reporting, there has been international pressure on the president, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work championing women’s rights, to come out in defense of Azango’s reporting.

When contacted by FPA, President Johnson Sirleaf’s spokesperson Jerelinmik Piah said he was not aware of any effort to halt Sande activities. Piah’s statement contradicts several people FPA interviewed as well as the Ministry of Internal Affairs letter that noted the president was present at the ceremony to hand over Sande land to the Poro.

Meanwhile, Azango remains in hiding. She has published a follow-up piece in this issue of FPA in response to the leaders’ announcements. Azango hopes that now that government has come out against the Sande practice of cutting, the threats against her will cease.

Internal Affairs Minister Blamo Nelson applauded the debate Azango’s reporting has ignited. “There has to be this debate,” he said. “You’re not going to shut off a thousand-year practice because you issued some edict.  That’s not the way to go.”

Government and traditional leaders firmly joined reporters Mae Azango and Tetee Gebro in a public discussion of the issue this week. The months ahead will tell whether Liberia’s tradition people will accept that discussion.
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New Narratives, a project that supports independent media businesses in Africa, provided editorial and technical support for this story. See more at: www.newnarratives.org

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