MONROVIA – “My friend was 19 when they carried her away,” said Cecilia Samujlah. The mother of four children. “She didn´t want to go. She was crying. She never came back.” The kidnappers later apologized to the parents of the dead girl. By then it was too late. “They said the devil ate her,” said Samujlah.
Her friend was a victim of FGM, a triatitional rite of passage that still is practised by thousands of rural women in liberia in secret rural schools.
Now Liberia has announced plans to halt the practice, a move that could have huge symbolic value as a model for Africa – if it can overcome the fierce resistance from powerful forces here.
“Government is saying: ‘This needs to stop,’ ” said Liberia’s Minister of Gender and Development, Julia Duncan-Cassell. She asked Liberians to “desist” from female circumcision. “Government wants to respect the belief of the people but, at the same time, is telling them not to infringe on the right of someone else.
Yet, despite this rhetoric, the government is making little effort to impose a ban, and it has admitted it has no deadline for eliminating the practice.
The practice is usually performed by a secret organization, the Sande Society, which operates “bush schools” across Liberia to teach traditional beliefs on marriage and motherhood. The society is a leading cultural force in many villages, supported by influential groups such as the National Traditional Council.
Ella Coleman, official in the council, says she doubts that female circumcision will be banned without extensive consultations first. She insists that the bush schools are completely voluntary. “You see children as young as seven walking into the bush,” she said. “Nobody is holding their hand. Nobody is forcing them. This is our tradition, and this is how we live.”
Phyllis Nguma-Kimba, a Liberian activist with the National Association on Traditional Practices, is one of those who campaigns against female genital cutting. She goes door-to-door in villages, holds meetings and educates women about the risks. She has rescued girls from the bush schools, and she has pursued legal action against those who kidnapped girls to force them into circumcision.
Today, she said, the ritual has become a source of power and money for those who run the bush schools. Girls must pay up to $70 each for two weeks in the school, and circumcision is considered part of their initiation. “I’m hoping and praying that it will be banned,” Nguma-Kimba said.
Her campaign against FGM has made her a target for death threats. Her office was repeatedly vandalized and her house mysteriously burned down. But she vowed to continue her campaign. “It shows that we are getting somewhere. It only gives me encouragement and the courage to keep going.”