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MONROVIA, Apr 2 2012 (IPS) - “There were three people. One person was holding me down; one person was holding my hand; and the other person was doing the job. They lay me down, and…” Fatu said of the female genital mutilation she underwent as an eight- year-old in Liberia.
According to the World Health Organization, Fatu endured what is classified as a type II female circumcision (on a scale of one to three), where her clitoris and labia minora were cut away.
Now 23 and a student at the University of Liberia, Fatu’s circumcision was part of her initiation into the secretive Sande Society, a pseudo-religious association to which most Liberian women – depending on which tribe and part of the country they are from – are members.
The Sande and its male counterpart, the Poro, shape many aspects of culture, tradition, and society as a whole in this West African nation. The Sande “bush” schools are where young Liberian women – some as young as two years old – are supposed to receive instruction on the traditions of respect, how to run a household, and how to prepare for marriage.
It is also where their circumcisions happen.
The Sande society believes this rite of passage makes a woman strong and prevents her from becoming promiscuous.
FGM’s central position in the Sande makes it particularly difficult to curtail, explained Minister of Gender and Development Julia Duncan-Cassell. But through cooperative efforts with traditional leaders, the government of Liberia is quietly moving to shut down the Sande schools and bring an end to female genital cutting in Liberia.
“Government is saying, ‘This needs to stop’,” stated Duncan-Cassell. “I can’t tell you that it stopped completely, but the process is ongoing.”
In the past the Liberian government has been unwilling to comment on FGM and Duncan-Cassell outlined the clearest position on the practice to date. She affirmed her office’s commitment to putting an end to female circumcision in the country. FGM is a taboo and complicated topic here in Liberia.
While Fatu mostly spoke positively of her experiences with the Sande, many women interviewed by IPS refused to discuss the society or FGM.
“It hurt. Seriously, it hurt. And there was a lot of blood,” Fatu said, contorting her facial muscles as she recalled the experience. Yet Fatu maintains she does not regret the time she spent in the Sande bush school.
“From that time till now, I feel like a woman. I feel proud,” she said, her last word spoken slowly, drawn out, and punctuated with the same emphasis she used to describe the pain she felt during her initiation.
Duncan-Cassell conceded that eradicating FGM in Liberia will take time.
“There has been a statement put out by the Ministry of Internal Affairs asking all of our mothers, our aunts, our sisters, to desist from such practices,” Duncan-Cassell said. “Government wants to respect the beliefs of the people but, at the same time, is telling them not to infringe on the right of someone else.”
There are no reliable statistics on the number of Liberian women circumcised; however, it is estimated that as many as two-thirds of women in the country have undergone the procedure.
The cessation of Sande initiations and FGM remains a highly sensitive issue for the government, and officials interviewed maintained that it would take years to put an end to the practice. However, an alleged deal exists that could see the Sande sidelined sooner than most expect.
Assistant Minister of Culture at the Ministry of Internal Affairs Joseph Jangar said that a deal has been struck between the Sande and Poro societies, whereby the Sande would hand over land used for initiations to the Poro.
“The women agreed,” Jangar said. “With that understanding, the women cannot practice Sande. Because of that, we are not issuing permits (to operate Bush schools) to any Sande Society.”
Jangar said that an official letter, sent on Dec. 9, 2011 to district superintendents and heads of both the Sande and Poro societies, requested that all Sande groves be closed down by the end of that year. “They all received the letter,” he said. “If we find any zoes (traditional spiritual leaders) practicing Sande school, we will fine them.” Monitors are scheduled to go out into the counties by the start of April, he added.
However, Minister of Internal Affairs Blamo Nelson claimed that he was not aware of the letter, but said that he sees FGM slowly becoming a thing of the past.
“The advocacy calling for an end to FGM should continue,” he said. “And I’m sure that in time these practices, that more and more Liberians are beginning to find obnoxious, will go away.”
Mama Tormah, head of all the Sande’s female zoes, said the society is currently undergoing a number of changes, including placing an emphasis on more formalised studies into the culture. Another is addressing a criticism often levied at the Sande – that it enrolls and circumcises girls far too young to take part on their own free will. Tormah acknowledged that 17 or 18 years should be the minimum age for students of the “bush” schools.
She, however, denied that grove schools were ever involved in FGM and chastised Duncan-Cassell for speaking publicly about this taboo subject. “You’re not supposed to ask me that question under lights,” Tromah protested.
Meanwhile, Nelson cautioned that traditions and beliefs are difficult things to change and, when it comes to an issue as culturally sensitive as FGM, are complicated to even debate.
A conversation on genital cutting in Liberia has no doubt begun. But for some, it has arrived too late.
In December 2011, 17-year-old Lotopoe Yeamah underwent her Sande initiation in Nimba County. According to media reports, complications left her bleeding for a week. When Yeamah was finally taken to a clinic, she was pronounced dead on arrival.
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