Talk candidly to women in Liberia, and they will tell the stories of friends who bled to death in forced ceremonies held deep in the forests.
“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 woman. By then it was too late. “They said the devil ate her,” Ms. Samujlah said.
Her friend was a victim of female genital cutting, a traditional rite of passage (also known as female circumcision) that is still practised by thousands of rural women in Liberia in secret rural schools, and in many other African and Middle Eastern countries, despite a high rate of death and injury.
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, in an interview with local journalists.
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.
Another government official, Grace Kpaan, is even stronger in her condemnation of the ritual. “I believe it is evil,” she said, “because there are times that little children even die in the bushes; seven, eight and nine year olds.”
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.
While many Liberian women are unhappy with the ritual, there is still widespread support for it. Many rural women are told that it is obligatory for marriage. As many as two-thirds of Liberian women have undergone the procedure, believing it necessary to reduce sexual desire and prevent promiscuity.
“It’s been here for a thousand years,” said Setta Saah, a senior official of the National Traditional Council of Liberia, a government-backed agency.
“The government won’t say ‘No’ without the approval of the people,” she predicted.
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, another top 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.”
She is angry at the anti-circumcision campaigns by activist groups. “When they talk about it on the radio and on posters, it incites people and causes conflict,” she complained.
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.
She herself suffered the procedure at the age of four. Before the ceremony, she was dressed up in fancy clothes. “You feel proud,” she remembers. But then they began to cut her. “I still remember the pain. When someone cuts your flesh, you remember it.”
As an adult, Ms. Nguma-Kimba suffered complications from the procedure, which damaged her marriage. She became a nurse at a hospital, where she had to care for injured girls to stop the bleeding after they were genitally cut.
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. It remains shrouded in secrecy and myths. Girls are often warned that they could fall sick and die if they disclose any details of the ceremonies.
“I’m hoping and praying that it will be banned,” Ms. Nguma-Kimba said. “It’s harmful. It’s a nightmare that you go through.”
Her campaign against genital cutting has made her a target for death threats. Her grandchildren were threatened, her office was repeatedly vandalized and her house mysteriously burned down in an arson attack.
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.”
Others, too, have been targeted by supporters of the ritual. Journalists who wrote about the issue have suffered threats. One journalist was forced into hiding after the front-page publication of her investigation into the Sande Society.
In the meantime, the ritual continues to kill. Girls perish from prolonged bleeding or from the dangerous use of unsterilized blades in the ritual ceremony.
“Sometimes it’s unsafe because they use the same instrument for other women, and they keep it for years,” said Kulah Borbor, a 46-year-old woman who underwent the procedure as an adolescent. “Sometimes they make a mistake and they cut where they shouldn’t cut. You bleed and bleed, and sometimes you die because no medical person is there. You see women running around and looking for help, but there is no help.”
Ms. Borbor said she knows many girls who died from the ritual. She won’t allow her own daughters to undergo it. When she was a child, a 12-year-old friend died from the procedure: “She bled for one day. Then, in the night, she died. You die for nothing, nothing.”
Yet she doesn’t believe that the procedure will be banned in the near future. It will take years to overcome the resistance, she said.
In Liberia’s rural villages, female circumcision is rarely questioned. Leaders of the secret society become angry when they are asked about it. “It’s our culture,” said Yamah Augustine, leader of the Sande Society in a village called Nimba Point.
“Our grandparents did it,” she said. “Even if the president says we should abandon it, we won’t abandon it. Nobody can ask me about my culture.”