When Kulah Borbor’s daughter was 13 years old, she asked her mother if she could join Liberia’s secret Sande Society. Most Liberian women are members of the Sande, so her daughter’s request was nothing unusual. But Borbor, a gender-based violence officer with the West Point Women for Health and Development Organisation, immediately discouraged her daughter’s interest in the Sande.
“I told her, ‘What? You want to go join?’” Borbor recounted. “I took her in a room and I showed her.”
What Borbor shared with her daughter was one of the Sande’s open, but almost never spoken, secrets – that the society’s initiation includes female circumcision, otherwise known as female genital cutting (FGC), or female genital mutilation (FGM).
“I said, ‘That’s where they cut mine,” Borbor continued. “From that time, she hasn’t talked about it.”
Borbor went on to deliver a candid account of the day she was cut by the Sande. She was made to feel at ease, dressed in nice clothes and carried on a hammock into the forest. There, a group of older women lay her down, gently tied her hands and covered her eyes, and told her that she should prepare to sail over water.
“They tell you, ‘Do not be afraid, there is no reason for you to fret.’”
Borbor paused, and used a deep breath to skip over the details of the actual circumcision. Her expression turned grim: “There is no means for you to leave from there,” she said. “There is a group of women surrounding you, holding you. Only god can free you from there.”
Taking a stance
There are no thorough statistics on FGC in Liberia, but it is estimated that as many as two-thirds of the country’s women are circumcised, with most undergoing the World Health Organisation’s type II classification – the cutting of the clitoris and labia minora.
UNICEF has long maintained that FGC “violates girls’ and women’s basic human rights, denying them of their physical and mental integrity, their right to freedom from violence and discrimination, and in the most extreme case, their life”. Such international pressure has, in recent years, resulted in a number of African states passing legislation banning FGC. But it was not until this past week that the Liberian government took a position on the issue.
Following a storm of controversy spurred by local media coverage of the Sande and FGC, journalists were threatened, a public debate ensued, and the government finally took a position on the practice.
On March 26, 2012, Minister of Gender and Development Julia Duncan-Cassell went on the radio and stated that government is asking traditional leaders to “resist from FGM”. In an interview the following day, she reiterated that her office is “in the process” of ending FGC in Liberia.
“Government is saying, ‘This needs to stop,’” emphasised Duncan-Cassell. However, she conceded that cultural attitudes will not change overnight.
In Liberia, FGC is deeply rooted in the Sande Society, which, along with its male counterpart, the Poro, plays a significant role in the upbringing of much of the country’s youth, as well as Liberian culture as whole.
In his seminal work on religion in Liberia, The Mask of Anarchy: The destruction of Liberia and the religious dimensions of an African civil war, Stephen Ellis describes the Sande and the Poro as “corporations, controlled in each town by local councils of elders whose identity and whose rituals may not be divulged to outsiders”.
The societies exercise less influence now than they once did, but it is still to the Sande “bush” schools that many young Liberian women go to for instructions on proper traditions of respect, to learn how to run a household, and to prepare for marriage.
There is, of course, more to the Sande than the controversy surrounding FGC. There is also community and commemoration, for example. On a recent visit to Grand Bassa County, women were seen returning from the bush schools in a sort of graduation ceremony, racing through the streets on motorcycles, flailing their arms and legs in celebration while crowds danced and cheered their return. But it’s the Sande’s ritualistic circumcision ceremonies that have slowly caught the nation’s attention, and not to everybody’s satisfaction.
On March 8 – International Women’s Day – the Liberian daily ‘Front Page Africa’ published afeature on the Sande Society and FGC. The article’s author, Mae Azango, subsequently received a number of threats and, three weeks later, remains in hiding. The same week, activist Phyllis Nyuma-Kimba was speaking on FGC in the United States when her home in Monrovia was set on fire, allegedly in retaliation to her opposition to FGC. On March 26, journalist Tetee Gebro was confronted by a group of men outside the nation’s capitol building and threatened for sympathising with Azango and her work on female genital cutting.
Despite letters of protest by Amnesty International and the Committee to Protect Journalists, government and traditional officials’ responses to those acts of intimidation have been largely unsupportive. Blamo Nelson, Minister of Internal Affairs – which oversees Sande and Poro conduct – questioned whether Azango had actually received any threats, despite the fact that her editor and publisher have supported her claims. And Mama Tormah, head of all female zoes (traditional spiritual leaders), called those questioning the practice of FGC “prostitutes.”
The fight continues
In response, Azango, Nyuma-Kimba, and Gebro, have all insisted that they intend to continue their work against FGC.
“Children have been violated,” Azango emphasised. “I’m talking about babies being violated. They say that a girl should be 18 so that she can make the decision on her own. But they take children – five, six, seven, ten-year-old children – to the Sande bush and have them cut. Those children did not make their decisions on their own. So their rights have been violated.”
Gebro argued that in addition to FGC being a matter of human rights, the threats she and her colleagues have encountered have made the debate on cutting in Liberia an issue of free speech and freedom of the press.
“I understand the risks, but I think we’re doing the right thing,” she said. “We need to talk about the issue in this country. If a doctor tells us that it [FGC] is harmful, we have to speak about it because we are journalists, and we have the right to speak about it if it is harmful to people.”
Openly apprehensive about how the debate on FGC is moving forward in Liberia, the Minister of Internal Affairs nevertheless said that advocacy on this issue should continue.
“You’re talking about educating a nation to abandon its cherished heritage,” he explained. “Take time to be holy. Otherwise, you’ll destroy yourself before you even achieve your objective.”