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"This Needs to Stop": Tempers Flare over the Practice of Female Circumcision in Liberia

Liberia faces a difficult task in ending the widespread cultural tradition of FGC.
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Liberian journalists Tetee Gebro (left) and Mae Azango (right) have been threatened for their coverage of FGC. Photo by Travis Lupick

Monrovia, Liberia:

When Kulah Borbor’s daughter was 13 years old, she asked her mother if she could join Liberia’s secret Sande Society. Most Liberian women are members of the Sande, so her daughter’s request was nothing unusual. But Borbor, a gender-based violence officer with the West Point Women for Health and Development Organisation, immediately discouraged her daughter’s interest in the Sande.

“I told her, ‘What? You want to go join?’” Borbor recounted. “I took her in a room and I showed her.”

What Borbor shared with her daughter was one of the Sande’s open, but almost never spoken, secrets – that the society’s initiation includes female circumcision, otherwise known as female genital cutting (FGC), or female genital mutilation (FGM).

“I said, ‘That’s where they cut mine,” Borbor continued. “From that time, she hasn’t talked about it.”

Borbor went on to deliver a candid account of the day she was cut by the Sande. She was made to feel at ease, dressed in nice clothes and carried on a hammock into the forest. There, a group of older women lay her down, gently tied her hands and covered her eyes, and told her that she should prepare to sail over water.

“They tell you, ‘Do not be afraid, there is no reason for you to fret.’”

Borbor paused, and used a deep breath to skip over the details of the actual circumcision. Her expression turned grim: “There is no means for you to leave from there,” she said. “There is a group of women surrounding you, holding you. Only god can free you from there.”

Taking a stance

There are no thorough statistics on FGC in Liberia, but it is estimated that as many as two-thirds of the country’s women are circumcised, with most undergoing the World Health Organisation’s type II classification – the cutting of the clitoris and labia minora.

UNICEF has long maintained that FGC “violates girls’ and women’s basic human rights, denying them of their physical and mental integrity, their right to freedom from violence and discrimination, and in the most extreme case, their life”. Such international pressure has, in recent years, resulted in a number of African states passing legislation banning FGC. But it was not until this past week that the Liberian government took a position on the issue.

Following a storm of controversy spurred by local media coverage of the Sande and FGC, journalists were threatened, a public debate ensued, and the government finally took a position on the practice.

On March 26, 2012, Minister of Gender and Development Julia Duncan-Cassell went on the radio and stated that government is asking traditional leaders to “resist from FGM”. In an interview the following day, she reiterated that her office is “in the process” of ending FGC in Liberia.

“Government is saying, ‘This needs to stop,’” emphasised Duncan-Cassell. However, she conceded that cultural attitudes will not change overnight.

Sensitive topic

In Liberia, FGC is deeply rooted in the Sande Society, which, along with its male counterpart, the Poro, plays a significant role in the upbringing of much of the country’s youth, as well as Liberian culture as whole.

In his seminal work on religion in Liberia, The Mask of Anarchy: The destruction of Liberia and the religious dimensions of an African civil war, Stephen Ellis describes the Sande and the Poro as “corporations, controlled in each town by local councils of elders whose identity and whose rituals may not be divulged to outsiders”.

The societies exercise less influence now than they once did, but it is still to the Sande “bush” schools that many young Liberian women go to for instructions on proper traditions of respect, to learn how to run a household, and to prepare for marriage.

There is, of course, more to the Sande than the controversy surrounding FGC. There is also community and commemoration, for example. On a recent visit to Grand Bassa County, women were seen returning from the bush schools in a sort of graduation ceremony, racing through the streets on motorcycles, flailing their arms and legs in celebration while crowds danced and cheered their return. But it’s the Sande’s ritualistic circumcision ceremonies that have slowly caught the nation’s attention, and not to everybody’s satisfaction.

On March 8 – International Women’s Day – the Liberian daily ‘Front Page Africa’ published a feature on the Sande Society and FGC. The article’s author, Mae Azango, subsequently received a number of threats and, three weeks later, remains in hiding. The same week, activist Phyllis Nyuma-Kimba was speaking on FGC in the United States when her home in Monrovia was set on fire, allegedly in retaliation to her opposition to FGC. On March 26, journalist Tetee Gebro was confronted by a group of men outside the nation’s capitol building and threatened for sympathising with Azango and her work on female genital cutting.

Despite letters of protest by Amnesty International and the Committee to Protect Journalists, government and traditional officials’ responses to those acts of intimidation have been largely unsupportive. Blamo Nelson, Minister of Internal Affairs – which oversees Sande and Poro conduct – questioned whether Azango had actually received any threats, despite the fact that her editor and publisher have supported her claims. And Mama Tormah, head of all female zoes (traditional spiritual leaders), called those questioning the practice of FGC “prostitutes.”

The fight continues

In response, Azango, Nyuma-Kimba, and Gebro, have all insisted that they intend to continue their work against FGC.

“Children have been violated,” Azango emphasised. “I’m talking about babies being violated. They say that a girl should be 18 so that she can make the decision on her own. But they take children – five, six, seven, ten-year-old children – to the Sande bush and have them cut. Those children did not make their decisions on their own. So their rights have been violated.”

Gebro argued that in addition to FGC being a matter of human rights, the threats she and her colleagues have encountered have made the debate on cutting in Liberia an issue of free speech and freedom of the press.

“I understand the risks, but I think we’re doing the right thing,” she said. “We need to talk about the issue in this country. If a doctor tells us that it [FGC] is harmful, we have to speak about it because we are journalists, and we have the right to speak about it if it is harmful to people.”

Openly apprehensive about how the debate on FGC is moving forward in Liberia, the Minister of Internal Affairs nevertheless said that advocacy on this issue should continue.

“You’re talking about educating a nation to abandon its cherished heritage,” he explained. “Take time to be holy. Otherwise, you’ll destroy yourself before you even achieve your objective.”

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Yes, circumcision can be painful, and of course some girls would not choose to go through the pain because it is natural for human beings to want to predict themselves from such experiences. But in my experience most girls are grateful when they have healed and they can enjoy the benefits. Look at the conduct of girls and women in societies where there is no circumcision and you will see why it is the route to protecting a girl's modesty and ensuring she will make a good wife and mother.

What are the benefits for a woman of having her clitoris removed? Some kind of acceptance as a correctly 'modest' woman. That's all. So she is denied the chance to prove she can be this,  unless she loses a precious and unreplaceable part of herself.  How about men proving they are modest, by cutting an inch off the end off their penis? That's the (least) equivalent of what is done to women. It's not the same as male circumcision, where men can still function sexually and experience pleasure afterwards. 

This is a moronic sexist comment and who decided it was ok to post this?

So, what measures are taken to make sure men don't enjoy sex, to protect their modesty, to make them a good father and husband?

Let us rip off one of you testicals and half of you penis using a dirty blade and no pain relief. Yes that will certainly make you a modest man.I am fed up of double standards in life, women covered up from head to foot while men run about in shorts and vest.

Female circumcision in Liberia and other African/Asian countries : Yes or no ?My answer : (Understand : I'm neither for it nor against it !)Let the Liberian (and other) people live how they want.It’s nobody’s business what others customs / traditions are, or what other people do !!!!!I’m sick of people in the west pushing their belief systems onto other people... it is so arrogant.Allow people to live their own lives and their own cultures !Is it wrong or not to circumcise girls ?Who would say ? It is done since many centuries ! There is always a reason why people do this since many centuries !In the West people don’t have the rights to say it is wrong, they only have to respect others culture and customs !That's the only way to become- and live in a peacefull world : RESPECT FOR EACHOTHERS TRADITIONS, BELIEFS, CUSTOMS, RELIGION(S) !Just live your lives people and get over yourselves... It is other people’s choices to live how they wish and they have nothing to do with you !

It has been done for so many centuries does not mean it cannot be wrong. Your logic is full of fallacy here. One problem of cultural relativism is that when you go to the extreme there's no right or wrong at all, so I can thurst a giant metal stick up your butt and castrate you and rape your wife and daughter in front of you and cut your son's tummy off while you are witnessing and you cannot say that I am wrong because this is how my culture treats filthy inferior outsiders. Don't get angry or criticize me, I cannot be wrong for seeing you as dirt who deserves all the violence, because this is MY view and you can never put YOUR view on me as you are nothing superior than me. So yes you deserve all the violence, that's the end of discussion. You'd better agree with me or you should go back to your mommy and think carefully what's wrong with your logic and belief. I think you need to be humble and respect women since you are also BORN BY A WOMAN. Without women you would have beeen worse than dead, as you would NEVER have lived in this world and speak ignorantly like this. Use your brain. If you support cultural relativism to that extent, everyone can do ANYTHING to you, no matter how brutal or violent it is, becoz you can never criticise me. May you never forget that this in the rest of your life.

Woah... Now, I'm all for keeping one's nose out of other people's business and respecting cultures and traditions, but not when they violate the human rights of individuals and subject people to extreme pain, risk of death, problems in childbirth and infections. Even if FGM were practiced with the hygiene standards required for such intimate procedures (it's not; often the same blade is used for a number of girls, and there is no choice of sedatives or painkillers) let's not forget that FGM is about keeping women in their place. I defy anyone to tell me otherwise. It's about making sure that women don't have sex before marriage. The majority of the outer part of a female's sexual organs are CUT away and she is SEWN up so that she is barely able to even pass urine. Let's also not forget that many young women are forced into or pressured into the procedure for fear of being sigmatised and or/ unable to marry. NO ONE should have to cut off their labia and clitoris and have their vagina sewn up in order to marry. THINK ABOUT what you are defending. This isn't about the west, this is about hearing the voices of the women who have been traumatised by FGM, and thinking about what FGM's aim is and what it entales for it's victims. Have a read of WHOs website details, and if you want to know a bit more, read and watch any of these: 

The two comments on this page are horrible examples of why it is so hard to stop FGM.  The first one thinks there are *benefits* to the women -- really, such as?  Infection?  Sex being painful for the rest of their lives?  If you're so worried about modesty, do us a favor and cut off your own genitals -- then you'll be a good husband, right?  But no, you'd never suggest such a thing.  It's fine for men to enjoy sex, but women should suffer each time, right?  Women should be physically mutilated so that they won't want sex, but men can stick it wherever they want, whenever, right?  And the second commenter -- yes, people in the West have to worry about the women in your country's welfare because YOU don't.  If you did, we'd have no reason to.  But to sit idly by while you mutilate your women and girls and subject them to lives of pain and suffering -- and why, so that you can be the big powerful man by treating defenseless girls like lesser things? -- no, we won't do that.  It's inhumane.  What you fail to understand is that women have the right to their bodies, and to make choices about their bodies and their lives -- and YOU don't have the right to make those choices for them.  You do NOT have the right to coerce a woman to undergo a permanent procedure that will at best leave her with painful sex for the rest of her life and at worst kill her.  You want circumcision, do it to yourself.  But you'd never want to have to have painful sex for the rest of your life -- would you?

Clitorectomy has to stop. It's not analogous to circumcision, it's analogous to castration. The argument that "people" can do as they wish to "their own people" has no merit. The men in power are castrating the women they perceive as belonging to them to insure that those women never enjoy sex. Implicit is the belief that women only exist to serve men and men's sons. Patriarchy to this extent is equivalent to enslavement, it must not be allowed in any human culture. I am a woman, and women are my people. The mutilation and enslavement of my people must stop.

FGC is dangerous. There is no reason have your vagina cut. Part of the reason men get circumsized is because it is more healthy. But women were never meant to be cut down there.