Traditional Council Suspends “Sande Bush” -For 3 Years, Says Practice Harmful 

By Stephen G. Fellajuah

MONROVIA – The ongoing stakeholders’ engagement seeking to abolish Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and other harmful traditional practices made a milestone step forward when the Traditional Council of Chiefs and Elders of Liberia (NACCEL) over the weekend suspended Sande Bush practice in Montserrado County for 3 years and announced that the exercise will be extended to other counties subsequently.

The practice was suspended by Chief Zanzan Karwor, Chairman of the National Council of Chiefs and Elders of Liberia, at the closure of the program on Rituals of Initiation Without Mutilation on Female Genitals in Liberia, held in SanKay Town, Todee District, Montserrado County, January 20, 2023.

Giving the purpose of program, Ambassador Juli Endee of the Liberia Crusaders for Peace (LCP) and Co- Chair of the Taskforce on FGM, said that the initiative when fully localized is expected to put Liberia on par with global decision to abolish FGM and other bad traditional practices.

Ambassador Juli Endee noted that after the suspension period traditional people will continue their initiation but it will be done without mutilation, adding that the traditional practitioners will take the best practices working closely with the Minister of Interbal Affairs, Mr. Varney Sirleaf to make sure that the vision to abolish FGM succeeds. She emphasized that nobody will succeed when the initiative is not localized and revealed that in February this year in Sangay Town with the Minister of Internal Affairs, Gender, UN Women, CSOs, the initiative will finally close in Montserrado County. 

At the program, a moratorium titled “Policy Statement by Traditional Leaders on the Temporary Suspension of Sande Practices in Liberia” done on February 4, 2022 in Gbarnga City, Bong County was read in the presence of all in attendance. The policy document recommends that all Sande practicing counties or districts should be included in the UN and EU Spotlight program. It also said that the National Council of Chiefs and Elders of Liberia and the Ministry of Internal Affairs should withdraw all operating certificates from traditional practitioners in Liberia.

It further recommended that the National Council of Chiefs and Elders and the Ministry of Internal Affairs should re-license and register trained zoes who have undergone positive reform activities after the 3-year suspension period, adding that the traditional bush school be conducted at least 45 miles from city limits.

The document also said the implementation and effectiveness of the pronouncement be monitored by the MGCSP, MIA, NACCEL, and CSOs to ensure that the pronouncement is adhered to.

Accordingly, alternative livelihood support including infrastructure development covers all eleven FGM practicing counties.

Also, the statement outlines the penalty for individuals that will not adhere to the policy document, to include any traditional leader, practitioner, or sande zoe caught violating the pronouncement during the period of suspension shall be penalized according to the traditional laws and policy of Liberia and held liable as per the following.

“Section 50 (7b) of the penal laws of Liberia which states that the first offense for a misdemeanor of the second degree to the definite term of improvement to be fixed by the court for the period more than 30 days.

“For the second offense the person will go to jail for one year if said person violates the policy document which was signed by all the counties and attested by Chief Zanzan Karwor National Chairman, NACCEL, Minister Varney Sirleaf of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, As well Minister Williametta E. Saydee Tarr, Minister of Gender, Children and Social Protection”, the statement said.

Speaking following the reading of the policy document, Chief Zanzan Kawor said it was good that all that paramount chiefs, Zoes and chairmen in the 15 political divisions of Liberia signed to the document that all have agreed to obey which he has to honor; therefore going forward no Sande activity is allowed in Montserrado County for 3-years.

Chief Karwor went further to ask the Ministry of Internal Affairs to set up a task force to withdraw all documents that zoes have  acquired from the Ministry and appealed to the Ministry that the initiative be extended to other counties.

For her part, the UN Women Country Representative expressed esteem appreciation to the NACCL for hosting the rituals to abolish FGM in Montserrado and for their leadership in ensuring that FGM is banned in all the 11 counties.

Recently, the National Traditional Council joined the government of Liberia, UN Women’s Goodwill Ambassador for the abolishment of FGM in Africa, the diplomatic community and other key state actors to launch the 16 Days of Activism and the dedication of the Songay vocational and heritage center which happened on the 25th of November 2022.

“The UN deeply appreciates that all commitment made at the launch of the 16 Days of Activism which are now materializing including the abolition of FGM starting by Montserrado County.

“Today I am pleased to commend traditional leaders’ efforts and progress made so far in banning FGM including the implementation of the 3-year moratorium signed in February 2022 and visiting the FGM crime scene whenever it happens to ensure that appropriate actions are taken.

“UN Women would like to encourage members of the council, zoes and other actors to move in the same direction until FGM is permanently banned from Liberia, including through the law, Madam Confort Lamptey stated.

She commended the leadership of Montserrado County for joining this effort and being the first County in Liberia to declare zero tolerance on FGM openly and voluntarily. The zoes and members of the Muslim community in Monrovia have supported this initiative despite the fact they were not targeted by the Spotlight initiative. According to her they have volunteerily given up the FGM practices and have started a self-funded tie-dye business which is far more profitable than the harmful practice.

Madam Lamptey furthered that UN Women will continue to partner with traditional leaders in their activities to promote gender equality and the empowerment of women whenever possible, as she announced that the UN Women will soon start the implementation of small -scale economic livelihood activities that will support Agriculture, Village Saving and Loans Associations (VSLAs), and small business initiative 

Also, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, said the Ministry is passionate about traditional activities and therefore pledged to continue to work with state actors including the traditional people across the country and at the same time encouraged them to respect the moratorium they have signed up to.

Also making a brief statement, the Minister of Gender, Children and Social Protection, Williametta E Saydee- Tarr, termed the moratorium as a dream come true and added it wouldn’t have happened without the blessing of the Feminist in Chief President George Manneh Weah who wants to ensure that women and girls are protected.

Also she thanked the Traditional Council for working with the Gender Ministry and as well leading the charge as she commended the Zoes for listening to their elders to ensure that harmful traditional practices are abolished.

“We come a long way from one year moratorium now we have 3-year moratorium just shows that Chief Zanzan Kawor and the Chiefs and Elders are working with the President and they don’t even want the President to loose face in front of the international community”, Min Saydee-Tarr said, and as well  told the gathering that President Weah has committed to working with the traditional people to find way to  remove the harmful part from the beautiful tradition of Liberia and as well promote the beautiful part of it.

She thanked the UN Women for bringing in Jaha Dukureh, UN Goodwill Ambassador on ending FGM and Child Marriage, to support the country’s effort to eliminate FGM which is a harmful practice against women and girls.

In separate statements,  Chief Zoe Masa Kanaka and Paramount Chief Steven Goba  thanked the Council for the cordial working relationship especially Queen Juli Endee and at the same time expressed their  gratitude to the UN Women for their support towards the traditional women of Montserrado County.

Sande Society, also known as the Sande Bush, is women’s initiation in Liberia. The Sande society initiates girls into adulthood by rituals including female genital mutilation. It is said by its supporters to confer fertility, to instill notions of morality and proper sexual comportment, and to maintain an interest in the well-being of its members throughout their lives.

The program was implemented by the National Council of Chiefs and Elders of Liberia, in collaboration with the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the UN Women with support from Ambassador Jaha Dukureh, Women Activist and UN Goodwill Ambassador for Africa on FGM and Child Marriage and Madam Jewel Howard-Taylor, Vice President of Liberia.

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