Mount Barclay, LIBERIA – Going to the “Sande Bush” school was never a dream for Dearest, Tina or Precious. The three girls, all high school students, say they were abducted by traditional leaders in September and taken by force to the Sande without the consent of their parents. They spent six terrifying weeks at the Bush school before their desperate mothers finally discovered their location and rescued them.
By Evelyn Kpadeh Seagbeh with New Narratives
The mothers say they had called for the police and child protection officers to intervene but they did not help, even after the women told their story to FrontPageAfrica.
“They took us away by violent means as though we were criminals,” said Dearest, 17, as she recalled the events (all girls real names are being concealed for their protection). “Plenty women came and surrounded us, grabbed us by our clothes on our waist and started pulling us.”
The three girls, who agreed to speak to FrontPageAfrica/New Narratives, claimed their abduction was organized by a traditional leader named Hawa Kromah because of an allegation that the girls caused a public disturbance in this area near the capital, Monrovia.
The girls are now united with their families but the emotional and physical trauma of their ordeal is still fresh.
“It was not my plan to go to the Sande,” said Dearest emotionally. “And today I see myself sitting here the way I am now, then what I knew myself to be as a woman before they carried us.”
The Sande Bush is a secret society for women where the practice of female genital cutting (FGC) is carried out on girls and women. (The male secret society is known as the Poro.) Traditionalists say that in the Sande, girls are trained to become good wives. According to a UN report, 44 Percent of Liberian girls and women belong to the tribes that still practice Sande Bush schools and it is likely almost all have undergone FGC. The practice sees a traditional leader known as a “zoe”, cut the inner and outer labia from girls, and usually the clitoris is completely removed. Often the zoes use a razor blade for the extremely painful procedure. The practice has been blamed for infection, excessive bleeding, trauma and lifelong health problems in later life including difficulty in childbirth.
Survivors of the Sande Bush are made to keep secret what happened there. It is widely known that disclosure of details of the Sande will result in calamity including, possibly, death. Journalist Mae Azango of FrontPageAfrica, faced death threats for revealing the secrets of the Sande in 2012. Despite the risk the girls and their mothers have rejected the Sande threats and called for the prosecution of the zoes who cut them.
The girls dismissed the idea that Sande was a place for preparing girls for womanhood.
“We did not go through any training there,” said Dearest. “We never saw them teaching anyone how to make mat, baskets or whatsoever! We suffered in that bush. They used to beat us, put green leafs on our backs and made us to lay in the hot sun until the leaves got dry on our backs. According to them (zoes) they were training us.”
Tina, Dearest, Precious and their mothers have little hope of the girls returning to school any time soon. Already, the new academic year has entered the fourth week. The costs of feeding, medication and costs demanded by the Sande leaders have left the mothers with nothing to send the girls to school.
“I am feeling bad because schools have opened and all our friends are in school and we are not, while we are sitting, time is passing,” said Dearest. “It was never our plan to go there. Everyone wants to go school to learn to gain something for themselves in the future.”
Bullying from friends, and stigma from the community for the stance the mothers have taken in speaking out against the Sande, has made it difficult for the girls to remain in the community. The parents have been forced to move three of the girls into a safe home.
Ministry confirms Illegal Sande Bush operation in Mt. Barclay
Guidelines set up by the Ministry of Internal Affairs regulating the operations of the Sande and Poro, forbid forceful initiation and operation of bush schools during the regular academic calendar.
On the date the girls were being released from the Sande, one of the mothers said she was told the Ministry of Internal Affairs had dispatched a team to the village of Gbokolleh ordering the bush closed, but by the time of publication, parents of some of the girls told FPA/New Narratives, the bush school continues. They claimed dozens of other girls are stuck there.
William Jallah, Director of Culture and Customs inside the Ministry, confirmed that the Sande Bush in Gbokolleh is operating illegally. He said the ministry has no knowledge of its operation and it has not met the requirements laid down by the ministry.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs says it has been challenged in curtailing the growth of Sande and Poro across the country in large part because the bush schools are money earners for the traditional leaders who run them. Ms. Azango’s reporting in 2012 found that traditional leaders were also threatening to prevent people from leadership positions in the community and meted out other penalties if they didn’t send their children to the bush schools.
“The illegal establishment of these bushes are the ones causing the problem,” said Mr. Jallah. “Right now schools have opened and when schools open, all bushes are to close. The two schools should not be open at the same time. At the time the girls were taken to the present we condemn all acts that have to do with forceful initiation which is not in conformity with our cultural practices. We have told our practitioners that forceful initiation is kidnapping.”
The director said that a meeting was planned with residents of Old Displaced Camp in Mt. Barclay Community, from where the girls were taken, aimed at educating residents to discourage forceful initiation. Director Jallah did not say when that meeting would take place.
The Internal Affairs executive puts some of the blame for the initiation of the five girls on to the failure by police to respond when the girls’ parents first sought their intervention. At that stage the girls were still being held in the community. Director Jallah said more training for police is needed.
“The issue went that far because the police too are not knowledgeable,” he said. “If a person insults or two people fight in a community, it’s not a cultural issue, and so they should have handled it but they did not, and the cultural people took it their way.”
Mothers Demand Justice
Receiving their daughters back, the mothers say they are grateful, but not totally satisfied. They have joined their daughters in calling for the prosecution of Ms. Kromah.
They want Ms. Kromah to pay damages for the psychological and physical damage suffered by the families. They also want Ms. Hawa to pay back all of the expenses the zoes made the mothers pay after the girls were abducted.
The mothers told New Narratives that they spent $LD1,000 each for transportation to carry food for the girls. Each of the girls’ parents was also made to purchase two sets of wax lappa for the zoes at $USD20 each, dry meat at $LD7,000, red oil, three buckets of rice for $LD1,500, liquor-Pisti $LD300 and a cane juice bottle. The mothers are petty traders and did not have the money to operate their own businesses. Because of this their other children have also been unable to afford to go to school.
In early October, when the matter was first taken to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Ms. Kromah signed an agreement to repay expenses incurred by one of the mothers. This has not happened according to the mother.
“I want her to be brought to justice and we are praying that God will help us in that process, because we ourselves are against this thing (Sande Initiation),” said the mother whose name is being withheld to protect her daughter’s identity. “It can destroy the children’s lives, while you are living, someone catches and force you into something you have never planned to be a part of, and it’s really giving them hell. We want Hawa Kromah caught and we go to court.”
When contacted by Front Page Africa Ms. Kromah denied any wrongdoing. She claimed her actions were justified because the girls caused a disturbance in the neighborhood. And she claimed illness had prevented her from repaying the expenses of the parents as she had committed to.
“I am away in the sick bush on Cape Mount highway. I am not in the community, I am sick,” she said by phone. “I was not the one who carried the children there. The parents reached out to me and I told them that I am not the rightful person, so I said let me call the rightful person, because for me, I am a member, but I am not the zoe. They were two and they had confusion and the girls they held as witnesses were not members so that’s how they carried them there to talk the case, and because they were not members, that’s how they joined [initiated] them.”
The parents of the girls rejected Ms. Kromah’s claim that she is in the sick bush. They say she is currently in Mount Barclay going about her normal activities. The mothers say they have also heard that she boasts to neighbors that, “nothing would come out of the matter, because it’s a traditional matter.”
On November 9, local media reported the suspension of a traditional chief in Bong County by the Internal Affairs Minister for forcefully taking and initiating an FAO staff member into the Poro Society. The ministry later ordered the Sande to release the FAO staff member, but in the case of the five young women, there have been no repercussions as yet.
Liberia is one of the 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East, where female genital cutting is still widely practiced, while at least 24 nations in Africa have passed legislation criminalizing it.
Liberia is has signed and ratified several regional and international human rights instruments. Those instruments call upon the state to ensure that women and girls are protected from all forms of violence and discrimination including FGC. They include the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), The Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol), The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child.
Human rights advocates in Liberia have tried for years to have the practice banned. It was initially included in the country’s New Domestic Violence Law (DVL) but opponents managed to have it removed by the time the law passed in 2019. On 19th January 2018 just before turning over power to President George Weah, former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf signed Executive Order 92, temporarily banning the practice of FGM for a year but the ban lapsed a year later.
Across the country, gender-based violence is pervasive. The continuous incidents of these and various forms violence against Liberian girls and women led eight foreign diplomatic missions and ECOWAS in Liberia to issue a joint statement in late November urging the Government of Liberia to fulfill its commitments to scale up a survivor-centered, comprehensive response to gender-based violence, including prevention, psychosocial support, medical assistance, access to justice and rehabilitation programs for perpetrators.
The statement was issued by the embassies of France, Ireland, Germany, Sweden, United Kingdom, United States of America, ECOWAS Commission, and the Delegation of the European Union to mark the launch of the 30th Anniversary of the global campaign “16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence”. The coalition also called on the Liberian government to strengthen and enforce existing laws such as the rape law and the domestic violence act, including the provision of resources for awareness about these laws.
This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Project.