The Globe and Mail
June 19, 2012
Liberian effort to end female circumcision runs into fierce opposition
By Geoffrey York
MONROVIA, LIBERIA - Talk candidly to women in Liberia, and they
will tell the stories of friends who bled to death in forced ceremonies
held deep in the forests.
"My friend was 19 when they carried her away," said Cecilia Samujlah,
the mother of four children. "She didn't want to go. She was crying.
She never came back."
The kidnappers later apologized to the parents of the dead woman. By
then it was too late. "They said the devil ate her," Ms. Samujlah said.
Her friend was a victim of female genital cutting, a traditional rite
of passage (also known as female circumcision) that is still practised
by thousands of rural women in Liberia in secret rural schools, and in
many other African and Middle Eastern countries, despite a high rate of
death and injury.
Now Liberia has announced plans to halt the practice, a move that
could have huge symbolic value as a model for Africa - if it can
overcome the fierce resistance from powerful forces here.
"Government is saying: 'This needs to stop,' " said Liberia's
Minister of Gender and Development, Julia Duncan-Cassell, in an
interview with local journalists.
She asked Liberians to "desist" from female circumcision. "Government
wants to respect the belief of the people but, at the same time, is
telling them not to infringe on the right of someone else.
Another government official, Grace Kpaan, is even stronger in her
condemnation of the ritual. "I believe it is evil," she said, "because
there are times that little children even die in the bushes; seven,
eight and nine year olds."
Yet,despite this rhetoric, the government is making little effort to
impose a ban, and it has admitted it has no deadline for eliminating the
While many Liberian women are unhappy with the ritual, there is still
widespread support for it. Many rural women are told that it is
obligatory for marriage. As many as two-thirds of Liberian women have
undergone the procedure, believing it necessary to reduce sexual desire
and prevent promiscuity.
"It's been here for a thousand years," said Setta Saah, a senior
official of the National Traditional Council of Liberia, a
"The government won't say 'No' without the approval of the people," she predicted.
The practice is usually performed by a secret organization, the Sande
Society, which operates "bush schools" across Liberia to teach
traditional beliefs on marriage and motherhood. The society is a leading
cultural force in many villages, supported by influential groups such
as the National Traditional Council.
Ella Coleman, another top official in the council, says she doubts
that female circumcision will be banned without extensive consultations
first. She insists that the bush schools are completely voluntary. "You
see children as young as seven walking into the bush," she said. "Nobody
is holding their hand. Nobody is forcing them. This is our tradition,
and this is how we live."
She is angry at the anti-circumcision campaigns by activist groups.
"When they talk about it on the radio and on posters, it incites people
and causes conflict," she complained.
Phyllis Nguma-Kimba, a Liberian activist with the National
Association on Traditional Practices, is one of those who campaigns
against female genital cutting. She goes door-to-door in villages, holds
meetings and educates women about the risks. She has rescued girls from
the bush schools, and she has pursued legal action against those who
kidnapped girls to force them into circumcision.
She herself suffered the procedure at the age of four. Before the
ceremony, she was dressed up in fancy clothes. "You feel proud," she
remembers. But then they began to cut her. "I still remember the pain.
When someone cuts your flesh, you remember it."
As an adult, Ms. Nguma-Kimba suffered complications from the
procedure, which damaged her marriage. She became a nurse at a hospital,
where she had to care for injured girls to stop the bleeding after they
were genitally cut.
Today, she said, the ritual has become a source of power and money
for those who run the bush schools. Girls must pay up to $70 each for
two weeks in the school, and circumcision is considered part of their
initiation. It remains shrouded in secrecy and myths. Girls are often
warned that they could fall sick and die if they disclose any details of
"I'm hoping and praying that it will be banned," Ms. Nguma-Kimba said. "It's harmful. It's a nightmare that you go through."
Her campaign against genital cutting has made her a target for death
threats. Her grandchildren were threatened, her office was repeatedly
vandalized and her house mysteriously burned down in an arson attack.
But she vowed to continue her campaign. "It shows that we are getting
somewhere. It only gives me encouragement and the courage to keep
Others, too, have been targeted by supporters of the ritual.
Journalists who wrote about the issue have suffered threats. One
journalist was forced into hiding after the front-page publication of
her investigation into the Sande Society.
In the meantime, the ritual continues to kill. Girls perish from
prolonged bleeding or from the dangerous use of unsterilized blades in
the ritual ceremony.
"Sometimes it's unsafe because they use the same instrument for other
women, and they keep it for years," said Kulah Borbor, a 46-year-old
woman who underwent the procedure as an adolescent. "Sometimes they make
a mistake and they cut where they shouldn't cut. You bleed and bleed,
and sometimes you die because no medical person is there. You see women
running around and looking for help, but there is no help."
Ms. Borbor said she knows many girls who died from the ritual
She won't allow her own daughters to undergo it. When she was a child, a
12-year-old friend died from the procedure: "She bled for one day.
Then, in the night, she died. You die for nothing, nothing."
Yet she doesn't believe that the procedure will be banned in the near
future. It will take years to overcome the resistance, she said.
In Liberia's rural villages, female circumcision is rarely questioned. Leaders of the secret society become angry when they are asked about it. "It's our culture,"
said Yamah Augustine, leader of the Sande Society in a village called Nimba Point.
"Our grandparents did it
," she said. "Even if the president says we should abandon it, we won't abandon it. Nobody can ask me about my culture