Lofa County, Liberia — After spending four months in the bush with her legs shackled as punishment for violating Sande society traditional practices, 38-year-old Evelyn James* was relieved to finally be free.
In Liberia, there are two secret societies for initiating people into adulthood - one for women and one for men. Ms. James was punished by the head of the Sande Bush School for singing a song about men's initiation, something women are forbidden from doing. As punishment, Ms. James was leg-cuffed, tortured and left in the bush near one of the Sande centres. When she was released in November, she was only four months into a three-year 'sentence'.
"After attending a community meeting to provide information on the EU and UN Spotlight Initiative... one woman approached me and told me that Ms. James was being held in the bush against her will," explains Boakai Yamah, a member of the Spotlight-supported Lofa Civil Society Organization Network Secretariat on Gender-Based Violence and Harmful Traditional Practices. The woman preferred to remain anonymous for fear of being reprimanded by traditional authorities in the area.
Ms. James was eventually released because of the collective efforts of civil society organizations, Spotlight Initiative and women's rights groups.
"I convened a meeting of all gender-based violence taskforce members and we contacted the relevant authorities... to intervene for the release of Ms. James," said Mr. Yamah. He brought together the County Gender Coordinator, County Superintendent, County Inspector, the head of National Council of Chiefs and Elders of Liberia (NACCEL), the District Commissioner of Kolahun and Paramount Chief of that Clan, who is the custodian of culture.
The Chairperson of the Council in Lofa County ordered the immediate release of Ms. James.
After her release, Ms. James was sent to hospital where she was treated for infections sustained from the torture she endured.
"The traditional practitioner responsible for punishing Ms. James has been fined and suspended from practising any traditional activity in Lofa by the heads of the NACCEL Lofa branch," says Merlin Daniel Dennis, a Programme Officer for the Spotlight Initiative in Lofa.
Suspension of harmful practices in Lofa County
In addition to demanding Ms. James' release, civil society organizations under the Spotlight Initiative coordinated with the NACCEL leadership and practitioners in the community to suspend Sande Society activities entirely in the county.
Furthermore, all the girls who had been initiated into the bush school - the place where girls undergo a series of rituals, including female genital mutilation (FGM) - were released. All Sande bush schools in the district were closed.
"Women will no longer be subjected to harmful practices, including female genital mutilation, but will live freely in their communities to support their families," said Mr. Dennis. "Girls will now focus on education within the conventional school system."
In Liberia, an estimated 50 per cent of women and girls aged 15 to 49 have undergone FGM, according to the 2013 Demographic and Health Survey. The Spotlight Initiative seeks to eliminate all forms of violence against women, including harmful practices such as FGM.
*Name has been changed to protect survivor's privacy.