2 July 2019

Liberia: Expanding the FGM Debate

The practice of circumcision, both male and female is widely practiced in Northern, Western, Central, Northwest, South Central and Southwest Liberia and is considered a common rite of passage unlike Southeastern Liberia, where the practice is not widespread. The Sande is the analogous organization to the Poro within which a woman takes the initial step to attain status in the wider society.

Sande initiates are said to be schooled in caring for a husband and children; in rules governing their relations with co-wives, in-laws, potential husbands, Poro graduates, and nonmembers of the Sande; and in rules concerning pregnancy and childbirth (e.g., Dennis 1972:145). But the most important ritual activity of the Sande is clitoridectomy, whereby women are invested with fertility, the basis of their own long-term welfare as well as the future political careers of their husbands.

Further, according to Caroline Bledsoe ("The Political Use of Sande Ideology and Symbolism") in traditional settings, very few complain about genital cutting despite the pain associated with it. "Fertility must be acquired through Sande initiation; in fact, most suitors insist that their future wives be initiated into the Sande, and they themselves usually contribute to the fees. Even girls who now go to government or mission schools almost invariably join the Sande, though the time they spend in the "bush" (the local English translation for the society's sacred grove) may be only two or three weeks" (Caroline Bledsoe, American Ethnologist, Vol. 11, No. 3 (Aug., 1984), pp. 455-472).

Clitoridectomy has been cited as an act of central ritual importance that renders girls wholly female, but the shared ordeal and pain that the initiates undergo also contributes to solidarity (MacCormack 1975:157; 1979:32).

According to the Liberia Institute for Statistics and Geo-Information Services (LISGIS), Liberia's very high fertility rate can be attributed in large part to the fact that most Liberians, especially women, are pro-natalists, meaning, they believe that "children are a gift from God, a poor man's riches," on whose shoulders support for their elderly forbears would eventually come to rest.

As the records show the prevalence of Sande membership among all Liberian women, aged 15-49, is 44.4%. This means that nearly half of all Liberian women by virtue of their Sande membership have undergone clitoridectomy.

The practice is most widespread in Northwestern Liberia (67.9%) that includes Lofa, Grand Cape Mount and Gbarpolu Counties; North Central Liberia (68.1%) Nimba and Bong Counties; South Central (36.2%), Montserrado, Bomi and Margibi Counties; South Eastern A (13.9%) Grand Bassa, River Cess Grand Gedeh, River Gee and Sinoe Counties; South Eastern B (9.3%) Grand Kru, Maryland, parts of Grand Gedeh and River Gee Counties.

The practice is also carried out among some in the expatriate community under medical conditions, meaning that parents take their doctors to have their clitoris removed through modern surgical procedures where the degree of pain is mitigated by the use of anesthetics.

Advocates for the banning of the practice of female genital cutting, which has been banned in many countries around the world, condemn it because of the raw pain and risk of severe hemorrhage and or possibly death associated with it. And despite vigorous campaigns over the last few years by several local campaigners backed by international support to have the practice banned in Liberia, yet statistics show that nearly 50 percent of Liberian women subscribe to the practice.

For instance, the recent decision taken by the Legislature to drop the issue from the new Domestic Violence Bill does indeed suggest that advocates against the practice have not taken into consideration the context and background in which the practice is carried out.

As mentioned earlier, clitoridectomy, female genital cutting or female genital mutilation, considered within the cultural context, is an act of bestowing fertility on a female. Such practice appears to posit the view that the clitoris which resembles the male organ is but an appendage (a taboo) whose presence on a female inhibits fertility thus its removal is considered an act of bestowing fertility on the Sande initiate.

In this regard, the excision of the foreskin of the male organ, also a rite of passage in Poro traditions is also considered in similar context as an act enhancing the ability of the male to father children. According to informants, circumcision for both males and females were completely unknown to cultural practices of ethnic communities in the Southeast.

One informant (name withheld) told the Daily Observer that he was somehow driven to undergo circumcision by his colleagues at the University of Liberia who scoffed and mocked him because he was uncircumcised and, because of that, he found it difficult maintaining relations with girls who always appeared abhorred and shocked by his admission that he was not circumcised.

He maintained that amongst his indigenous Kru people, circumcision of both males and females was virtually unknown, so for him it was quite normal until he took up residence on the UL male dormitory away from his long-term residence in New Kru Town, where he grew up amongst is ethnic kinsmen.

Time, he said, will resolve the problem in view of the rapid encroachment and intrusion of urban values into traditional society, which now sees increased circumcision rates amongst ethnic Kru males unlike before. This development, according to him, is reflected in official statistics showing falling fertility rates among women. In 2018, total fertility for Liberia was 4.45 children per woman, down from 4.65 children per woman in 2015. This fall is generally attributed to education but mainly among urban women who have rates of literacy and education beyond elementary school. And so, the question is whether the mere passage of legislation to ban the centuries-old practice can reverse it, or will simply drive it underground in varying forms, such as medicalized cutting, performed under the watch of a trained medical doctor.

And what becomes of its cultural context? The response of Sierra Leone's first lady recently to the question illustrates the complex dilemma faced by many women struggling to come to terms with what they considered an assault on their culture and traditions.

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