Vacationing in a village during school breaks is an aged-old tradition for school going children in Liberia and almost every child looked forward to that as they prepare for the break.
A tradition that Semah always observed in her father’s village in Kpo Town in District 3 in Grand Bassa County. Kpos Town is a village along the laterite road that leads to the Liberian Agriculture Company.
14-year-old Sema Gayay came for vacation and did not know that touching a girl marked with white chalks on her body was a crime and the penalty was forced initiation.
Her father was furious but nothing anyone could do to save her and he believed strongly that the initiation was a setup between the head Zoe and his wife.
Semah was caught washing the back of a friend who was on parole from the Sande Bush while taking her bath in the nearby creek.
She had no idea that is forbidden to touch a Sande Bush girl marked with white dirt if you are not a member; a mistake that she had to pay the ultimate prize in the all-pervading Sande Society with her dear life.
“This was the same reason I did not want Semah to live here; she lived with my sister in New Buchanan attending school.
She is just 14 years old in the sixth grade,” Semah’s father explained with deep grief.
“Since she left the Sande Bush she has been sick, on and off and she finally died,” he lamented.
The agony in his eyes was enough to say this has to stop. Semah was initiated alongside 12 other teenage girls from surrounding villages.
The initiation was completed and the girls were released but Semah had to stay extra days because her wounds were healing slowly.
Speaking to the nurse on duty at the Government health Center on Compound 3, where Semah was taken for treatment said her death might have been the cause of slow healing of the wounds which was most likely due to infection and complications of the cutting but the villagers think otherwise.
“Cases of such come in all the time but I can’t remember handling the particular case in question but those are issues we deal with from nearby villages almost all of the time. Sometimes they are rushed here freshly bleeding and we have to help stop the bleeding and stitch the person up,” she looked around her surrounding with caution.
“Nothing we can say; we are in the middle of this traditional practice and some of us are not members so we cannot say much,” the nurse explained apparently in fear of any reprisal from any member of the society, pro rata.
“These things happen in the process. Some wounds heal slowly because people are made differently. But it is sad that she died,” an elderly lady only identified as Ma Diaway interrupted the conversation.
The bush school has a traditional mandate that non-members are not supposed to meddle into the affairs of the school. If this mandate is broken, the punishment is to have that person face the full weight of the tradition by being forcibly initiated.
“The Sande Bush helps girls to find a husband while they are very young,” says Madam Musu Nyango, a Clan Chief in Weala Clan Margibi County. “We were not having all these problems with child abandonment, unwanted pregnancies etc. when we were actively initiating our daughters and finding them good husbands,” she concluded.
Semah is just one out of many young women and girls who have lost their lives as result of the painful traditional practice. Many more are at risk if they are not protected by laws or legislations from the Government.
With the support of international partners and local human rights organizations; a legislation that would criminalize domestic violence and supposedly ban FGM was placed before Liberia’s Parliament to be debated but the Zoes and Traditional leaders who promote and perform FGM hold so much to this tradition which is practiced in almost two-thirds of Liberia. The blessings of traditional leaders and Zoes are critical to the passage of this law for political or social influence.
According to Cllr. Ruth Jappah, a former Commissioner at the Law Reform Commission, the current Domestic Violence Bill even if passed by the 54th Legislature with the FGM component would do little to protect Liberian girls.
“Circumcision would be available to females 18 and older. For girls younger than 18, the legislation left the decision to parents or guardians. It is a loss, and the Bill isn’t comprehensive,” Cllr Jappah told a group at a legal analysis session organized by the Liberian Feminist Forum.
“If you read the Bill, it isn’t banning FGM. It will still be carried out on the girls who ‘consent.’ Right now, we’re at small steps,” the female lawyer explained.
Women’s groups in Liberia are finding it very difficult to convince the Zoes, villagers and other Traditional Leaders that FGM does not only violate international humanitarian laws, but that it also impairs women medically and psychologically.
According to a recent report, it is over two weeks since Deborah Parker and Miatta King’s daughter along with her three friends were adopted and forcibly initiated into the Sande Bush in the outsketch of Montserrado, in the Mount Barclay Community.
Miatta’s daughter, 18, was due to sit an academic examination for a new school in the next school year having gotten promoted to the senior high level while Deborah’s daughter, 17, had missed classes in her professional studies.
The crux of the bush issues is that it is not practiced by choice therefore the mothers’ quest to government is that those traditional zoes who forcibly took their children to be initiated should be jailed as well.
What is more appalling is that the Ministry of Internal Affairs responsible to supervise traditional activities in Liberia has acknowledged the forceful initiation when it confirmed the adoption of the five teenaged girls; “It is a total violation of the girls’ rights and the traditional practice,” William Jallah, the head of traditional matters told a journalist.
But according to Dr. Mulbah, one of Liberia’s professional OB-GYN and the head of the Medical and Dental Counsel of Liberia, the consequences of FGM include severe pain, especially if nerves ending are severed, excessive bleeding, shock, genital tissue swelling, fistulas and chronic urinary or genital infections complications in child bearing amongst others.
For her part, Atty Tonia Wiles, a former Commissioner at the Independent Human Rights Commission, she sees FGM as a grave human rights violation which is against all the international protocols Liberia signed unto.
“We see as violation to the persons’ human rights. Liberia signed unto protocols that speak about protecting people from all forms of tortures,” she explained to a team of journalists.
For now, Liberia remains deadlocked over the issue.
The 54th legislature passed the Domestic Violence Bill with a compromise, the FGM Clause which was enshrined in it be removed in order to stand alone; but since then that Bill is yet to surface in any of the session at the Legislature.
Former president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the country’s first female president and winner of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for her work on women’s rights, could not surmount the entrenched power of the Sande society on many women’s issues, including FGM.
“As a mother and a woman leader, the record is clear on my response to the issues of women and children, particularly in support of their economic participation, their participation in governance and their protection from violence,” Sirleaf said in an address to Parliament in January 2016 before introducing the domestic violence bill that included the FGM clause.
Women groups and other civil society organizations have drafted a new legislation, which would make FGM practiced illegal in the Country but these groups might find it difficult to get lawmakers sign this contentious Bill that traditional groups feel is against their own human rights.
Currently the Anti-FGM Bill is being scrutinized by women groups and other civil society organizations along with legal experts to build consensus amongst stakeholders before submitting it to the 54th Legislation for debate.
It’s not known exactly when or why the Sande came into existence or, for that matter, how or why female circumcision became a right for passage.
But a group called the National Council of Chiefs and Elders, formed by former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in 2012 “to preserve, protect and foster positive Liberian traditions, cultural heritage and traditional institutions,” believes that circumcision is not solely a young woman’s choice but also the decision of chiefs and elders, parents and even the traditional Zoes/cutters.
Though he is under pressure from traditional leaders to settle the grievance within the society, the father of Semah wants to file a lawsuit against the head Zoe and some of villagers for forcefully initiating his daughter subsequently leading to her death.
The issues surrounding FGM remain a taboo in 13 of the 15 counties in Liberia and half of the country’s population feared the Zoes that practice FGM.
A member of the FGM Working Group, Mr. Tamba F. J. Johnson notes progress. “When we started in 2012 to even mention the word FGM during a public debate with local medical professionals, including doctors and nurses, everyone walked out,” the advocate said.
“Now there is at least an open discussion in society about the things happening in the bush. And we believe this is powerful.”
A key challenge is not only protecting girls who are currently at risk but also ensuring that those to be born in the future will be free from the dangers of the practice. This is especially important considering that FGM-concentrated countries are generally experiencing high population growth and have large youth populations.
According to research, in 2015, an estimated 3.9 million girls were cut around the globe. This number of girls cut each year is projected to rise to 4.6 million girls, the year 2030 and in every society in which it is practiced, female genital mutilation is a manifestation of deeply entrenched gender inequality.
Where it is widely practiced, FGM is supported by both men and women, usually without question, and anyone that does not follow the norm may face condemnation, harassment and ostracism. It may be difficult for families to abandon the practice without support from the wider community. By C. Winie Saywah-JIMMY #SRHRDialogue