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Liberian government suspends FGM for three years: What’s the next big step?

A bracelet with the letters FGM is on a young girl's wrist

In February 2022, the head of the Traditional Council of Liberia, Chief Zanzan Karwor announced a three-year suspension on FGM. This bold step is a positive stride toward the protection of women’s and girls’ rights in the country, and we commend the Government of Liberia for this.  However, without the existence of a law criminalizing the practice of FGM in Liberia, the protection of women’s and girls’ rights remains a huge concern.

FGM in Liberia

FGM is a human rights abuse that continues to affect the lives of millions of women and girls around the world. The World Bank estimates that as of 2020, Liberia had a prevalence rate of  31.8%. In Liberia,  FGM is deeply entrenched within the culture and is performed by traditional leaders, the zoes,  as a rite of passage into womanhood and is part of an initiation into the powerful secret society – the Sande – which is run by women. The zoes are so powerful that membership is necessary for social, economic, or political influence in villages in around two-thirds of the country. Non-members could be kidnapped and forced to undergo FGM for discussing Sande issues, breaking Sande law, or passing close to the Sande bush schools.

In 2018, Liberia outlawed FGM for one year through Executive Order No 92 on Domestic Violence. This Order only prohibited performing FGM on a girl under 18 years and stipulated punishment for people who violated the order. However, the order was not effectively implemented since it was not publicized by the government and most Liberians were unaware of its existence.  In some other instances, the National Traditional Council, in coordination with the government, suspended the Sande bushes where FGM is practiced, the most recent being during Covid. Still, these suspensions have never led to long-term or permanent action against FGM.

Liberia has not criminalized FGM

Although Liberia is party to a number of international and regional human rights conventions and protocols calling for the protection of women and girls from FGM, such as the Maputo Protocol, which in Article 5 calls explicitly on State Parties to ban all forms of FGM through legislative measures, which Liberia ratified in 2008, the country does not have a law prohibiting FGM for all ages.

Liberia must adhere to its international and regional commitments on the framework of the elimination of harmful practices (including FGM), respect for sexual and reproductive health rights, their promotion, and the protection of the rights of women and girls. It must put in place a law that will safeguard the rights of women and girls to live free from FGM.

The government of Liberia needs to do more

Asenath Mwithigah, the Global Lead on Equality Now’s End Harmful Practices program, called on the Liberian government to widely popularise the suspension on FGM and support its law enforcement agents to ensure that the suspension is enforced fully and added that “the newly announced three-year temporary suspension on FGM in Liberia is a welcome step in the right direction. We strongly believe that Liberia is ready for a permanent ban prohibiting FGM without exception to age.” 

We further urge the government to strengthen its witness protection mechanisms and increase investment in healthcare, social and psychosocial services for survivors. The process of enacting the prohibition of FGM law is a consultative process that will require collective action from all stakeholders and duty bearers, including traditional leaders, the zoes, and survivors of FGM.

We call on H.E. President George Weah, the Legislative Arm of Liberia’s Government, and all other government agencies to take urgent and necessary steps to enact and enforce a comprehensive legal and policy framework that criminalizes FGM for all ages, impose tough penalties on perpetrators, and provides women and girls with recourse and protection against this serious human rights violation. 

Additionally, for effective advancement of the implementation and adherence to the proposed legal and policy framework and for Liberia to achieve SDG 5, which seeks to end FGM by 2030, Equality Now is willing to work to strengthen the capacity of state and non-state actors using the multi-sectoral approach (MSA). The MSA is a comprehensive strategy involving collaboration between state and non-state actors working together to address gender-based violence, including FGM, which includes resource allocation by government agencies to civil society organizations and other key stakeholders and awareness-raising campaigns on human rights and the legal consequences for perpetrators.

FGM is global, but so is the movement to end it. To learn more about the MSA, explore our recent report on the implementation of the MSA to end GBV and FGM across 11 countries in Africa