The Shadow Society That Controls Female Bodies in Liberia
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because females should have control over their bodies.
The nation of Liberia has an intricate court system — comparable to that of the United States — but when 16-year-old Zaye Doe and a friend used offensive language during a disagreement last March, both had to answer to another institution: the country’s omnipresent Sande society.
The two teenagers appeared before Power Daywoe — a local female cleric and tribal leader known as a Zoe — who acted as judge, jury and enforcer. Daywoe found both girls guilty and then personally administered the sentence: forced female circumcision, also known as female genital mutilation (FGM).
For Doe, however, the punishment turned into a death sentence. Days after the makeshift trial in the bush, she died en route to the hospital due to complications arising from the circumcision. Three weeks later, according to a program officer with the NGO Women Solidarity Incorporated, Daywoe performed the rite of passage on 25 additional girls.
It can take six months … before a community agrees to abandon [female circumcision] in favor of “nicks,” piercings or baths of milk and honey.
In many parts of Liberia, the Sande reigns supreme as a female initiation society primarily responsible for the preparation of girls from the Mende ethnic group for adulthood. It’s also an arbiter of established social norms, and the one rite of passage the Sande will not let go of is female circumcision.
“[FGM] keeps [girls] married young,” says Grace Uwizeye, the Kenya-based program officer of the End FGM campaign organized by the international NGO Equality Now. “It cuts off their education [and] keeps them in one place in their lives. When you look at the causes of this negative cycle, you realize that because of FGM, so many other issues are affecting girls.”
Last summer, with the encouragement of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia’s parliament debated legislation that would criminalize domestic violence and supposedly ban FGM. But the Zoe who promote and perform FGM hold so much sway that in roughly two-thirds of Liberia, their blessing is critical for political or social influence and as a result, had the FGM provision excised from the bill. Despite its passage last fall, it raised a furor among women’s rights campaigners worldwide.
According to Uwizeye, the proposed ban would have done little to protect Liberian girls. Circumcision would have been available to females 18 and older. For girls younger than 18, the legislation would have left the decision to parents or guardians. “It was a loss, but the bill wasn’t comprehensive,” Uwizeye tells OZY. “If you read it, it wasn’t banning FGM. [It] would have still been carried out on the girls who ‘consented.’ Right now, we’re at small steps.”
Currently, UNICEF, the United Nations Population Fund and other women’s groups are canvassing villages and towns surrounding Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, to convince the Zoe that FGM not only violates international humanitarian laws, but it also impairs women medically and psychologically. According to the World Health Organization, the consequences of FGM include severe pain, especially if nerve ending are severed, excessive bleeding, shock, genital tissue swelling, fistulas and chronic urinary or genital infections.
Equality Now and other groups are proposing new legislation, which would make FGM available only to girls age 18 and older. But it’s an election year, and few Liberians will go on the record as supporting the contentious issue. Sirleaf, 78, the country’s first female president and winner of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for her work on women’s rights, will step down after 11 years, leaving Vice President Joseph Boakai pitted against former footballers, businessmen and ex-rebel leaders for the highest office in the land.
Several women’s groups have rallied behind Boakai, who is considered a progressive for serving under a woman president. But not even Sirleaf herself could 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.
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 of passage. But a group called the National Council of Chiefs and Elders, formed by Sirleaf in 2012 to “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 cutters. As for alternatives proposed by medical and human rights groups, it can take six months or more of meetings before a community agrees to abandon FGM in favor of “nicks,” piercings or baths of milk and honey.
For now, Liberia remains deadlocked over the issue. Zaye Doe’s parents have filed a lawsuit against Power Daywoe and three associates for her death, although the family is under pressure from Zoe leaders to settle the grievance within the society. Meanwhile, local journalists such as Mae Azango, a reporter with the newspaper FrontPage Africa, have been forced into hiding for exposing the practices of the secret societies.
Still, Uwizeye of Equality Now notes progress. “When we started … in 2012 and even mentioned the word FGM during a public debate with local medical professionals, including doctors and nurses, everyone walked out,” Uwizeye says. “Now there is at least an open discussion in society about the things happening in the bush. And that is powerful.”