TODEE, Montserrado County, Liberia – In November, the current school year was just midway, but in Tumay Town, Todee District, it was already over for more than 100 girls at the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Public School. They had abandoned their classrooms to attend Sande school. This contributed to a drop in enrollment from 250 students at the beginning of last academic year to 48 this term, according to the public school’s administration.
“The parents have taken over 10 girls each from the first, second and third grade classes,” said David Gardea, the school’s principal. “Not to mention the fourth, fifth and sixth grades, all the bigger girls are gone. Now we have only two students in fifth grade, and five students in sixth-grade classes.”
When the girls were sent to the traditional bush school, leaving classrooms half empty, concerned parents pulled out their boys to enroll them in nearby public schools with better attendance and facilities.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf School, founded in 2010 by James Tumay to honor Africa’s first female president, is an old, unfinished building with mud walls. The walls of some of the classrooms have crumbled, and other classrooms do not have a roof.
Sirleaf claimed to have no knowledge about the issue.
“I am totally unaware of that school in Todee, neither do I know any James Tumay,” the former president told FrontPage Africa. “When he built the school, he should have contacted me, but he never did that, so I do not know of that school.”
The Ministry of Education has struggled for decades to keep children in rural parts of the country out of the Sande bush, whose calendar coincides with the official school year.
Cecelia T. Reeves, Todee District educational officer, blamed parents and guardians, who she said were ignoring the Ministry of Education’s advice against taking children out of school for the Sande secret society.
“Parents willingly take their kids from the formal education to the bush school,” Reeves told FrontPageAfrica.
Bush school activities were also occurring in neighboring towns and villages, according to Kaymah Gbatoe, the chairlady of the women of Tumay Town.
“I am vexed because I want the bush school to break so the girls can come back to school,” she said.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs was not aware of the ongoing bush school activities in Todee District. Officials were visibly astonished when this reporter sought an interview on the matter. The government had halted all bush school activities in a resolution in June last year.
Authorities made immediate calls to confirm the news. Assistant Minister for Culture Joseph B. Jangar, who looked shocked upon hearing the news, called Chief Zanzan Karwor of the National Council of Chiefs and Elders of Liberia via mobile phone. Chief Karwor was also stunned by the news and called Todee District’s town chief, Henry Goba, to confirm the allegation and report back to him.
“Town Chief Goba confirmed that indeed the bush school is operating illegally without license, which is against the ministry’s mandate,” Jangar said. “Therefore, we instructed the school to close within two weeks before the break is over so that the children can return to the classrooms.”
In that June resolution, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the chiefs proclaimed female genital mutilation (FGM) an unsafe traditional practice and backed its abolition. Authorities reached the decision at a two-day consultative meeting, which brought together over 180 traditional leaders. It was the first time chiefs and elders publically voiced their opposition against a practice of the Sande society.
Their decision came a year after exiting President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf issued an executive order to protect women against any form of violence as well as female genital mutilation, a mainstay of the practices of the Sande society.
Liberia passed the Domestic Violence Act into law in July last year. However, the law does not outlaw FGM. President Sirleaf and anti-FGM campaigners pushed to include it, but lawmakers scrapped it, thus limiting the scope of the act.
Campaigners blamed traditionalists for their influence over lawmakers and the resurgence of the Sande bush.
“We do not know what level of power the traditional people have over the legislature,” said Lakshmi Moore, country director of ActionAid Liberia. “As we have been speaking against the practice, they, too, have been speaking strongly on the importance of the practice traditionally.”
Female genital mutilation is evidence of patriarchy in Liberia, said Facia Harris, executive director of Paramount Young Women Initiative.
“We see, unfolding along the corridors of the legislature the systematic use of power to strangle the full realization of the human rights of women and control of their bodies,” she told FrontPageAfrica.
Unlike the Sirleaf administration, the current administration under President George Weah has not shown any support for the closure of the Sande society or abolishing FGM.
Minister of Gender, Children and Social Protection Piso Saydee Tarr defended the practice in November last year.
“I should not always be the one speaking on this issue…when we have been living with culture and tradition for many years in Liberia,” she told a women’s leadership conference in Paynesville, four months after the passage of the Domestic Violence Act.
The government’s stance on the practice was making it difficult to end FGM, according to Harris.
“That comment [Tarr] made on the issue of FGM may intensify the already existing resistance to end FGM,” Harris said. “The minister needs to consider the fact that FGM is a human rights issue, and thereby state actors or duty bearers must take the elimination seriously. We are aware of the ongoing efforts to criminalize FGM and the missed opportunity when the sections were deleted from what we now have as the Domestic Violence Act of 2019.”
Former President Sirleaf declared that the push against female genital mutilation must continue.
“We the women have to press hard to see if we can get an amendment to put the FGM component back into the Domestic Violence Act, but it will require a lot of work,” she told FrontPageAfrica on Sunday, March 8, at the launch of the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Center for Women and Development, which coincided with the celebration of International Women’s Day. “So we have to sensitize our women leaders, particularly in rural areas, to see how harmful the practice is to women and girls so that they can work with us to get the amendment.”
Back in Todee, Principal Gardea of the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Public School, remained frustrated over empty classrooms at his school.
“Some Parents would rather stand on the spot without argument and pay L$3,500 to L$5,000 for their girl children to go fight the devil (enroll in Sande school), but when it comes to paying their children’s school fees, they say the school is supposed to be free,” said Gardea. “We tell them that education is best for their children instead of the bush school, but they don’t listen to us.”
This story first appeared on FrontPageAfricaOnline as part of a collaboration for the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.