Thousands of young girls annually prepare for their initiation into a women’s secret association, Sande Society, which operates mostly in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. As part of their initiation, young women take a vow of secrecy after weeks of training in the forest, promising not to not tell uninitiated girls or men what happens to them, to assume new names, and to have their clitorises cut off - known as female
genital mutilation (FGM) - according to women in the secret society.
About half of Liberia’s some 16 ethnic groups, including the Bassa, Mende, Gola and Kissi, observe the rules of this historically-secret, centuries-old society.
One Mende member from Tubmanburg, Western Liberia, who asked not to be named, told IRIN removing a girl’s clitoris helps her become a “prolific child bearer.”
Another member, 42-year-old Jebbeh Sonneh, explained to IRIN, “Those who perform such [FGM] acts are typically elderly women in the community designated for the task, or traditional birth attendants.”
Secrecy shrouds outreach
Sociologist Theo Kerkulah at the University of Liberia in Monrovia says even though the practice of rural forest initiations is common in Liberia, it is not openly discussed. “It is a difficult topic to teach. Most girls who joined the society are now in the classroom and never feel happy when you talk about it in the open. They feel [it is a betrayal]. Perhaps because of the myths that are associated with it.”
Kerkulah says the girls are bound by secrecy vows and the time they spend together in the forest where they undergo trainingto enter adulthood, learning domestic skills and moral lessons.
The lecturer told IRIN many girls believe the spirit of Sande, the guardian of women, guides them into and during adulthood.
Monrovia-based medical researcher Deddeh Siah says physical pain is an additional factor binding the young girls, “In some Sandes [initiates], not only is her genitalia removed, the student is marked [cut] so that large scars remain on the skin of the initiate for life.”
She estimates about 5,000 puberty-aged adolescents join the group every year, either by force or choice.
Culture can kill
Sandes are a part of Liberia’s cultural heritage, says Jomo Weah who works at a government-run culture centre in Kendeja, on the outskirts of Monrovia. “We cannot stop it. It is our culture. We can only intervene by allowing them to go about doing it when the girls are on school break.”
Local civil society groups including Girls Movement for Education have tried to discourage parents from allowing their girls to join Sande Society.
Government health worker Mary Mah says FGM is killing hundreds of girls in Liberia every year. “Over 20 percent of the initiates die from excessive bleeding after their clitoris has been removed.”
Mah told IRIN if excessive pain and extreme bleeding do not kill the girls, FGM can scar or disfigure her for life. “Risk of serious potentially life-threatening complications [include] ongoing bleeding, infection including HIV, urine retention, stress, shock…[and] psychological trauma.”
Catherine Watson Khasu, an elected leader in Grand Cape Mount County in Western Liberia, about 140 km from Monrovia, dismisses these risks, “People have said all sorts of things against our cultural heritage, which are not true. I am a member of the Sande [Society] and I’m proud of it. There is nothing harmful about the Sande.”
She told IRIN the government and human rights organisations should respect the tradition of Liberia’s indigenous groups, “We know the [1989-2003 civil] war did a lot of damage to our country, but that does not mean we should desecrate our traditional shrines.”