Traditional leaders in Liberia are resisting international pressure to end female genital mutilation – performed for centuries by the country’s ancient secret societies – but campaigners say they're hopeful that newfound dialogue will help rally support from within.
The fight against FGM has taken on greater urgency in Liberia since executive orders banning the practice expired a year ago.
Both campaigners and members of the government have been engaging with traditional groups in an effort to end the practice, which results in longterm physical and mental damage.
But at an event Saturday marking the celebration of the International Day of Zero tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, the head of Liberia's Traditional Council, chief Zanzan Karwo, reprimanded international groups seeking to end to FGM in Liberia.
“The United Nations and its partners have placed traditional leaders in a difficult situation by calling on us to abolish FGM,” Karwo said – arguing the livelihoods of the elders are built on preparing the women and girls to become successful wives.
Karwo, who was speaking through a translator at a ceremony in the rural settlement of Fortville, outside of Monrovia, wants to see broader and sustained consultations with traditional leaders involved in FGM to help them find other means of work.
The women's Sande and men's Poro societies – the two dominant traditional secret associations in Liberia – have been present in the region for centuries.
FGM is performed on women and girls enrolled at the Sande secret bush schools, something international campaigners are fighting to eliminate.
The practice is internationally recognised as a violation of the rights, health and integrity of girls and women.
Liberia does not have a law that clearly criminalises FGM, explains Marie Goreth Nizigama, of UN Women Liberia, adding that about "50 percent of women and girls aged between 15-49 years" have been mutilated.
Law in limbo
In July 2019, the Liberian parliament back-pedalled on efforts to criminalise FGM by deleting sections from a law on domestic violence that sought make the practice illegal.
Then President George Weah extended an executive order by predecessor Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf temporarily banning FGM in Liberia for one year.
Now that the order has expired, anti-FGM campaigners warn women and girls remain at serious risk.
Liberia's Gender, Children and Social Protection Minister, Williametta E Saydee Tarr, says plans are underway to permanently protect women and girls from FGM by making the practice illegal for good.
“We will continue to speak out about the risk and realities of FGM as it has lasting physical and mental consequences that need to be discuss so that girls and women no longer have to suffer in silence,” she said.
It is hoped the law will also impose heavy penalties on perpetrators.
Tarr called on the traditional leaders gathered in Fortville to "build a consensus" that would abolish FGM, adding the UN, European Union and United States were working with the Liberian authorities to end the practice.
With support from international partners, Tarr said the government was implementing a pilot project to provide new skills to traditional priests that operate the bush schools.
A learning centre in the northwestern region of Grand Cape Mount County is to encourage other business opportunities such as catering, soap making and tailoring.
Despite the moves to protect women and girls from genital mutilation, not everyone agrees the practice should be banned.
Clarissa Reeves 30, a mother of 10 says, she hopes President Weah will allow her daughters to be able to visit the bush school.
“This is our culture that our forefathers started; we should not be calling for it to end.," she told RFI. "They should allow us to continue this practice.”
Ma Zoe, a well-known female traditional priest also frowns on the campaign to end FGM in Liberia, saying she fears African cultural and tradition would be hurt by an enforced ban.
UN Women representative Marie Goreth Nizigama, however, is hopeful that traditional leaders will eventually come round.
“We have to continue to engage with traditional leaders," she said. "I think we are making progress because before we were not allow to talk about FGM, but now the traditional leaders themselves are talking about it."