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The Unending Story Of Ending FGM In Liberia

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By Danicius Kaihenneh Sengbeh

Despite efforts to eliminate Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Liberia, the battle against this harmful practice continues to persist, casting doubt on the effectiveness of the proclaimed ban. FGM has deep roots in Liberian culture, making its eradication a complex and challenging task that requires more comprehensive actions. Although the international community and some countries have successfully eliminated FGM, Liberia’s progress in this regard remains far from reality.

FGM, also known as female circumcision, has been practiced in Liberia for generations, firmly embedded in the cultural fabric of the nation. Despite its devastating consequences, including death and reproductive problems for countless women, the practice remains prevalent. The Liberian government, in collaboration with international partners, has taken steps to raise awareness and enact laws to abolish FGM, but these efforts have yielded limited success.

During the observance of the International Day of Zero Tolerance against FGM in Sonkay Town, Montserrado County, on February 6, 2023, Chief Zanzan Karwor, the Chairperson of the National Council of Chiefs and Elders of Liberia (NACCEL), made a bold proclamation. He declared that FGM had been permanently banned in the country, urging other chiefs and elders across the counties to spread the message. However, despite this announcement, reports continue to emerge that the practice of FGM persists clandestinely, particularly in central, northern, and northwestern Liberia where it holds strong cultural and traditional significance.

One particularly off-putting incident took place on June 27, 2023, when a short video footage on Explore Lofa TV showcased a sande bush school graduation ceremony involving hundreds of women and girls. This was flagrant violation of the “proclamation” announced by Chief Karwor. The sande bush school is where FGM practices are traditionally carried out in Liberia. In the video, a seemingly influential elder, believed to be a traditional leader and chief, encouraged his community to embrace the practice without hesitation, warning against compliance with calls for abandonment. His message emphasized the importance of preserving tradition and culture, linking them directly to their sense of identity. Regardless of local and international efforts against the practice of FGM, the traditional leader is unyielding with the FGM culture.

Before Chief Karwor’s February 2023 proclamation, a ritual was reportedly conducted where FGM practitioners in Montserrado County returned their tools and permits, signifying compliance with the ban. Similar rituals were planned for the remaining ten FGM-practicing counties in Liberia, aimed at ensuring the total elimination of FGM across the nation. However, despite these symbolic gestures, the practice continues, casting doubts on the effectiveness of these measures.

It is worth noting that NACCEL has made previous pronouncements to suspend FGM, such as the Ganta Declaration in 2019 and a subsequent three-year ban from 2022 to 2025. However, these temporary measures have failed to produce the desired results. It only looks like the usual Liberian thing where many good laws are in the books on the shelves but the implementations are only on the lips.

The February 2023 pronouncement by Chief Karwor marked the most emphatic stance against FGM, calling for a permanent ban. This was not about suspending it! The event garnered the support of international partners, including the United Nations and European Union, who have been assisting the Liberian government through undertakings like the Spotlight Initiative to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls, including harmful practices like FGM. These partners have invested in concrete actions of economic empowerment and skills development dissuade traditional women involved with the practices of FGM to desist.

Under the spotlight initiative, for example, UN Women has established four vocational and heritage centers in four Counties – Montserrado, Grand Cape Mount, Lofa and Nimba – to provide alternative economic livelihood programs to traditional practitioners. The centers, according to a UN Women report, serve as dedicated learning centers for traditional FGM practitioners and young women and girls to acquire new livelihood skills. These efforts seek to gravitate Liberia from its torrid FGM practices.

The persistence of FGM in Liberia poses a grave threat to the well-being and future of young girls in the country. Many have been forcibly initiated into the sande bush, enduring immense physical and psychological pain. Many young girls and women in the capital do not see traveling to rural areas as options during vacation periods – to see their grandparents or the country sides – the original homes of their parents. There’s fear of abduction and initiation.

While progress has been made and awareness activities are ongoing, the ultimate goal of eradicating FGM in Liberia still seems distant. This means that younger girls, both now and in the future, continue to face the risk of falling victim to the grueling pains of FGM and the subsequent reproductive health issues, such as fistula. Many victims are living with constant pain and difficulty in having sex, repeated infections, which can lead to infertility, and bleeding, cysts and abscesses, among others.

Addressing the deeply ingrained cultural norms surrounding FGM in Liberia would require a multi-faceted approach. Efforts should focus on continuous comprehensive education and awareness programs that challenge the societal acceptance of this harmful practice. Furthermore, targeted interventions, including providing support and resources for alternative initiation rites and offering economic opportunities for women, like the aforementioned Spotlight Initiative, can help shift cultural attitudes and empower communities to abandon FGM.

To truly eliminate FGM in Liberia, these actions must be accompanied by sustained governmental commitment, international cooperation, and the active involvement of local communities working together to protect the rights and well-being of girls and women across the nation. Only then can Liberia move closer to achieving the much-needed elimination of FGM and usher in a new era of gender equality and reproductive health. Until that time, the unending story of ending FGM in Liberia remain endless.

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