Following a moratorium on FGM in Liberia, victims are still seeking justice
“I was so happy to get my daughter back,” Deborah Parker said.
On 28 September 2021, Parker’s 15-year-old daughter was abducted by traditional leaders in Liberia, known as the zoes, and taken from Mount Barclay, a town near the capital Monrovia, to the Sande Bush. There, she was forcibly initiated into the zoes’ secret society. For these women, initiation includes female genital mutilation (FGM).
From the moment her daughter was abducted, Parker spoke up, going against an unwritten community rule that such harmful practices remained unspoken. She went to the police, knocked on the doors of governmental offices, and contacted several NGOS, international organizations, and UN presences in Liberia, including UN Human Rights, for help.
On 10 November, Parker had grown impatient with the wait and decided, with help from a local NGO, to retrieve her daughter. She had found out that her daughter and 42 other girls had been moved from the Sande Bush to another town. Parker went to the girls’ new location and paid for her daughter’s release.
Parker’s campaign to denounce the zoes and harmful practices in Liberia did not end when she got her daughter back. Today, she continues to tell the stories of her daughter’s and other families’ ordeals to the press and anyone else who will listen. She even went to the National Council of Chiefs and Elders of Liberia to demand an end to the practice of kidnapping people for forceful initiation into secret societies. Such practice, she stressed, is not a part of Liberian culture.
Following Parker’s request for assistance from the UN Human Rights country office in Liberia, on 10 February 2022, several Special Procedures mandate holders of the Human Rights Council issued a communication about her case to the Government. In that communication, they expressed their concern over several violations of her daughter’s rights, including her rights to life; physical integrity; liberty; not to be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment,
In 2018, then-Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf signed an executive order to ban FGM for girls under 18. This was followed by another one-year ban imposed in 2019 by traditional leaders who signed the Ganta Declaration, a seven Count Policy Statement for the temporary suspension of zoes activities. When Parker’s daughter was forcibly taken, legal protections against FGM were no longer enforced. However, Parker’s campaign is likely to have prompted the Government and the National Council of Chiefs and Elders of Liberia to announce a three-year moratorium on FGM on 21 February 2022.
Uchenna Emelonye, Country Representative for UN Human Rights in Liberia, welcomed the development.
“The desired end result would be the promulgation of a law that penalizes and abolishes [FGM] in Liberia,” he said. “[This] requires for the Parliament to be involved, thus also requiring the citizenry to be involved on that request for the President to sign it into law.”
Emelonye pointed out that Parker had become a strong voice against FGM. She was herself initiated into the Sande Bush secret society, yet is now one of the few Liberian women who, despite societal pressure to keep quiet, has been able to speak up on the issue.
“Her voice has re-echoed and reverberated in so many corners of Liberia and internationally on the impact and effects of FGM,” Emelonye said. “It is thanks to her that the issue of FGM can be put on the table and discussed and possibly abolished.”
UN Women’s Country Representative to Liberia, Comfort Lamptey, said that she foresees an end to FGM in Liberia. It will take time, but the foundations are already being laid, she added.
“We need to see more women who have gone through this practice speak out and attest to its harmful effects,” she said. “So long as we can ensure that there are alternative livelihoods for many women who engage in these practices, so long as we also invest in more education of communities around the harmful effects of FGM, and so long as we can also bring those who defy the ban to face the rigours of the law, I believe that we can see an end to FGM overtime.”
Victims still seeking redress
When Parker’s daughter was taken to the Sande Bush, she was told by the zoes that she had to pay them money and bring food and other supplies every day otherwise her daughter would not be fed. The secret society also demanded USD 45 for her daughter’s release. To this day, Parker has not received her money back nor compensation for the wrongs done to her daughter.
Now released, Parker’s daughter is no longer enrolled in school. Because of all the money she gave to the zoes, Parker can no longer afford to pay her daughter’s school fees.
“On the one hand, I received justice because my daughter came back. On the other hand, I did not get justice because the women who abducted her were not prosecuted,” Parker said. “Although the [authorities] said they would make them compensate me, I am still fighting for these women to be arrested and pay back my expenses. I lost the little money I had.”
Parker remains vigilant, “for the children that are still in the community, whose lives are under threat because of the Sande,” she said.
A three-year moratorium on FGM is not enough for Parker. She is calling for the Government of Liberia to do more to ensure that girls can go to school without fear of getting kidnapped by the zoes.
“The advice I can give to parents who are going through the same ordeal as I did is to continue the fight. Those of us who can speak up should speak up for those who cannot,” she said. “No one should give up until changes come.”
Domestic Legal Framework
Overview of Domestic Legal Framework in Liberia
The Constitution explicitly prohibits:
X Violence against women and girls
X Harmful practices
X Female genital mutilation (FGM)
X Provides a clear definition of FGM
X Criminalises the performance of FGM
X Criminalises the procurement, arrangement, and/or assistance of acts of FGM
X Criminalises the failure to report incidents of FGM
X Criminalises the participation of medical professionals in acts of FGM
X Criminalises the practice of cross-border FGM
X* Government has a strategy in place to end FGM
* No evidence of a national action plan currently in place.
What is The Law Against FGM?
An overview of the international and regional treaties signed and ratified by Liberia can be found in
Appendix I of this report.
The legal system in Liberia is a mix of common law (based on Anglo-American law) and customary
law. It is a unitary state with health and criminal law policies set by the national government.
The Constitution of Liberia (1996)1 is limited in its commitment to protecting women and children: it
does not address violence against women and girls, harmful practices, or FGM. Article 11 provides
for (a) the fundamental right to ‘security of the person and (b) to equality regardless of gender.
There is currently no national legislation in Liberia that expressly criminalizes and punishes the
practice of FGM.
In 2016 new legislation was proposed in Liberia to address domestic violence, including FGM. The
Domestic Violence Act (amending Chapter 16, Offences Against the Family, of the Penal Code to
add a subchapter on Domestic Violence) was controversial in Liberian society in proposing to
criminalize and punish FGM.2 The initial draft of this bill would have amended the criminal law to
make it an offense to perform FGM on a girl under the age of 18 – or a woman 18 years or over
without her consent. Punishments for those who break the law included rehabilitation and fines,
but these were not explicitly set out and would apparently be determined on a case-by-case basis.
However, the House of Representatives finally passed the bill in 2017 with all references to FGM
removed, following intense political pressure and unease about prohibiting what are considered
In January 2018 the outgoing president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, signed Executive Order
No. 92 banning FGM for girls under 18 years of age as originally proposed in the Domestic Violence
Act (but effectively allowing women over 18 to consent to FGM), stating that its omission
undermined the law.3 The Executive Order will, however, expire after one year and the ban will
lapse in January 2019 if it is not enshrined into national law.
What The Law Covers
In the absence of adopted national legislation prohibiting FGM in Liberia, there are other laws in
a place that could address the practice, but to date has not included relevant provisions or been
used to bring prosecutions.
The Penal Code of Liberia (approved 1976, published 1978)4 currently addresses the infliction of bodily
injury with respect to several crimes in the following sections:
▪ Section 14.23 (Recklessly endangering another person), states, ‘A person commits a
misdemeanor of the first degree if he recklessly engages in conduct that creates a substantial
risk of death or serious bodily injury to another.’
▪ Section 14.50(1) (Kidnapping) states, ‘A person is guilty of kidnapping if he unlawfully removes
another from his place of residence or business . . . (e) To inflict bodily injury . . .’
▪ Section 14.51 (Felonious restraint) states, ‘A person commits a felony of the third degree if he
knowingly: (a) Restrains another unlawfully in circumstances exposing him to risk of serious
bodily injury . . .’
▪ The Penal Code does not yet directly refer to harmful practices or FGM (see above); however,
Section 16.15 (Subjecting a Child to Harmful Practices) was introduced by the Children’s Law
(discussed below) and makes a person subject to a second-degree felony ‘if she or he subjects a
child to any of the following practices: . . .(e) or a practice that violates or endangers the bodily
integrity, life, health, dignity, education, welfare, or holistic development of the child.’
The Children’s Law (2011)5 contains Article VI, Section 4 on Harmful practices prohibited for a
child, but it does not address FGM and in fact specifically omits cultural practices by stating: ‘No
person or society shall subject a child to . . . any unnecessary or uncultured practice that may inflict
physical, psychosocial, or emotional pain to the child or otherwise violate or endanger her or his
bodily integrity, life, health, dignity, education, welfare, or holistic development.’ Section 7.1 does,
however, go on to state, ‘No person shall subject a child to torture or other cruel, inhuman, or
degrading treatment or punishment.’
Medicalised FGM is not widespread in Liberia. Almost all FGM continues to be carried out by
traditional cutters (zoes) as part of Sande's secret-society initiation.
Current national legislation does not criminalize FGM if it is carried out by a health professional or
in a medical setting.
In some countries where FGM has become illegal, the practice has been pushed underground and
across borders to avoid prosecution. Liberia shares borders with Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, and Sierra
Leone, where FGM prevalence and the existence and enforcement of laws vary widely.
The absence of any national legislation banning FGM in both Liberia and neighboring Sierra Leone
gives families and cutters from other countries the opportunity to move across borders to avoid
prosecution. There is no accurate data available on the number of girls in the region who are taken
across borders to be cut.
The existing national laws in Liberia make no provision for the punishment of cross-border FGM.
There are currently no penalties set out in the laws of Liberia for practicing FGM.
As stated above, although the Executive Order currently in place for a year bans FGM on girls under
18 years and on women over 18 without their consent, it also includes ineffective penalties for
perpetrators, where counseling and fines can be arbitrarily determined by a judge.
Regarding other national laws, the Penal Code does not contain any specific penalties for FGM (see
above). However, the aspects of the Penal Code that might indirectly cover FGM set out the
▪ Section 14.23 (Recklessly endangering another person) – as a misdemeanor of the first degree,
this is subject to a definite term of imprisonment to be fixed by the court at no more than one
▪ Section 14.50(1) (Kidnapping) – kidnapping is a felony of the first degree and is subject to ‘an
indefinite term of imprisonment, the maximum of which shall be fixed by the court at no more
than ten years;
▪ Section 14.51 (Felonious restraint) – this is a felony of the third degree and is subject to ‘an
indefinite term of imprisonment to be fixed by the court, the maximum of which shall be three
▪ Section 16.15 (Subjecting a Child to Harmful Practices), as introduced by the Children’s Law
(2011) – this is a second-degree felony and is subject to ‘an indefinite term of imprisonment to
be fixed by the court, the maximum of which shall be five years.’
Implementation of The Law Cases
In the absence of national legislation outlawing FGM, there are no officially reported prosecutions or
court proceedings in Liberia. There is also no evidence that other national legislation has been used in
any way to prosecute perpetrators of FGM. There is also generally weak implementation and
enforcement of both international and regional treaties that are meant to protect women and girls.
There have been isolated reports in the media of arrests and court hearings associated with FGM,
although information is limited:
▪ In 2016, following the death of 16-year-old Zaye Doe in Nimba County after undergoing FGM,
four individuals were charged with negligent homicide, criminal solicitation, and criminal
conspiracy.6 However, the court case was postponed at least twice and eventually suspended.
No further details are available on its current status.
▪ In 2013, the First Judicial Circuit Criminal Court found two women guilty in the case of Ms. Ruth
Berry Peal, was kidnapped from her home in northwest Liberia in 2010 and forced to
undergo FGM as part of the Sande initiation ritual.7 She was reportedly also forced to take an
oath of secrecy and threatened with death if she broke that oath. She was held for one month,
during which she developed health complications and required three months of treatment
following her release. The court found the women guilty after a month of deliberations, and
they were eventually sentenced to three years imprisonment. The judge cited both the Liberian
Constitution and Article 4(1) of the Maputo Protocol on the Rights of Women, which entitle
women to respect for life and integrity and security of person.8
Relevant Government Authorities and Strategies
The leading government departments responsible for gender issues, including work to ending FGM in
Liberia, are the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection and the Ministry of Internal
Affairs. These departments have worked over recent years in partnership with both international
and national non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to raise awareness of the harms of FGM and
particularly engage traditional leaders in the dialogue. They have also worked with the Ministry of
Justice in an attempt to pass anti-FGM legislation. It has not been possible, however, to identify a
current national strategy or action plan in place to tackle FGM in Liberia.
In 2011 the Government condemned instances of forced initiation into Sande society, and across 2013
and 2014 the Ministry of Internal Affairs made attempts to shut down Sande activities and review
licenses. Despite this attempted ban on activities, evidence suggests that FGM continued as normal.
There is also no evidence that the Ebola crisis in 2014 (and the associated education by governments
about the spread of the disease) resulted in any change to the practice of FGM in Liberia.
In addition, the Liberian National Police (LNP) incorporates the Women and Children Protection
Services, a unit specifically tasked with addressing violent crimes against women and children. The
unit was established in September 2005 through an agreement between UNICEF and the LNP. It
has a presence in all 15 counties in Liberia.9 It is not clear to what extent this unit is involved in the
work to end FGM.
Civil Society Observations
There are many international and national NGOs working at the grassroots level across Liberia to
mobilize communities to end FGM, including the National Working Group Against FGM, which
operates under the supervision of the National Civil Society Council of Liberia, which has a mandate
to eliminate all harmful practices; the National Association on Traditional Practices Affecting the
The health of Women and Children; Women Solidarity Incorporated and the Women of Liberia Peace
Network. While some positive changes have been observed in terms of increasing awareness and
dialogue around the subject, these efforts still face considerable challenges and are not being fully
supported because of the continued absence of clear national policy and legislation addressing FGM
One challenge to ending FGM in Liberia is the ongoing, fierce resistance from advocates of the
Sande society: families who resisted the cut or journalists who have attempted to speak out about
the practice has faced both verbal and physical threats in the past, to the extent that some have
had to move away for their own safety. In the continued absence of national law, communities
are reluctant to report FGM to the police and face stigma for attempting to do so.
‘Social and cultural circumstances in Liberia do not allow girls and
women to oppose FGM or to escape, though some girls resort to
running away due to lack of protection under the law.’
~ Women’s Secretariat of Liberia (WONGOSOL)10
Civil society has campaigned hard for many years for the Government to pass national legislation
banning FGM. Those working to end the practice were particularly frustrated by the removal of
FGM from the recent Domestic Violence Act, and they continue to urge the Government to meet its
obligations under international and regional treaties, including CEDAW and the Maputo Protocol
(see Appendix I).11
The 12-month ban put in place by the former president was welcomed in January 2018, but with
much skepticism as to what extent it would deter communities from practicing FGM.12 It has not
been widely publicized, and critics point out that it does not fully protect women over the age of 18
and leaves punishment to be determined by local judges.
Though enforcement may be lacking, civil society has expressed the intention to use the temporary
ban in their awareness-raising activities in communities and lobby the new Government to widen
the policy further and develop a comprehensive national law.13 It is reported that several NGOs and
anti-FGM groups, together with legal experts, have drafted FGM legislation and plan to submit it to
Parliament in the coming months.
Conclusions and Suggestions for Improvement
▪ FGM remains firmly entrenched in Liberia, and societal pressure to maintain the practice as part
of Sande society continues to be a challenge for all those working to protect the health and
rights of women and girls.
▪ Although Liberia has signed up for many of the international and regional treaties that are
relevant to protecting women and girls from gender-based violence and harmful practices, there
is weak implementation and policy development. To date, amendments to existing national
legislation have failed to include protection from FGM.
▪ While the former president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, signed Executive Order No. 92 in
January 2018, banning FGM for girls under 18 years of age, there is no evidence that the ban is
being enforced, and it will expire after 12 months (in January 2019) unless enshrined into
▪ While both international and grassroots NGOs and activists continue to work in communities to
advocate for an end to harmful practices, the absence of formalized government policy and the
failure to pass national legislation specifically banning FGM undermines these efforts.
Suggestions for Improvement
▪ There is an urgent need to adopt robust national policy and pass legislation in Liberia to protect
women and girls, of all ages, from FGM. The new Government has the opportunity to build upon
the current Executive Order No. 92 and draft new national legislation in full consultation with
civil society and community members. The Government should draw on the experience of other
Fgm-practicing countries that have implemented legislation, to ensure the content of the law is
applicable and enforceable in the context of Liberia.
▪ The Government is urged to draft and fully implement a national strategy to end FGM and work
closely with all activists and communities to achieve long-lasting and positive change.
▪ Laws need to criminalize and punish all perpetrators of the practice (including those who
perform, procure, aid, or abet FGM). Instances of medicalized FGM and cross-border FGM need
to be included too.
▪ Failure to report FGM that is planned or has taken place is a further key consideration in
protecting women and girls through national laws.
▪ The Government also has a responsibility to protect uncut women and girls (and their families)
from verbal abuse, physical threats, and exclusion from society. Such provisions are included in
the laws of some other countries (for example Uganda).
▪ Laws also need to protect all victims of FGM: women and girls who are pressured by society into
agreeing to FGM should not be subject to criminalization and further punishment.
▪ All relevant laws need to be made accessible to all members of society and easy to understand in
all local languages.
Implementation of the Law
Once national legislation is in place to protect women and girls from FGM, the following actions will
contribute to efforts to end the practice in Liberia.
▪ Anti-FGM programs should disseminate clear, easy-to-understand, and accurate information
around the law.
▪ Judges and local law enforcers need adequate support and training around the law and should
be encouraged to fully apply the sentences provided for by the legislation.
▪ Increased involvement of local and religious leaders in education around the law, including their
responsibilities and the importance of the law in protecting women and girls in their
communities would also be beneficial.
▪ Adequate monitoring and reporting of FGM cases would improve efficiency and inform policy
makers, the judiciary, the police, civil society, and all those working to implement and enforce
▪ All professions (including those in health and education) need training around the law and their
responsibilities to respond to women and girls who are affected by or at risk of FGM.
▪ Support and protection for victims and witnesses in FGM cases will be essential.
▪ Tribunals could be encouraged to make sure any prosecutions relating to FGM are clearly
reported, including through local media such as community radio, and made available on local
▪ Where literacy rates are low, information about the law needs to be made available through
different media channels and resources.
▪ Mandatory reporting of instances of FGM by medical staff in hospitals and health centers could
▪ Where these are currently unavailable and a need is identified, appropriate protection measures
(for example, the provision of safe spaces) should be put in place for girls at risk of FGM.
Appendix I: International
and Regional Treaties
Signed Ratified Acceded Reservations
International Covenant on Civil & Political Rights
International Covenant on Economic, Social &
Cultural Rights (1966) (ICESCR)
Convention on the Elimination of All forms of
Discrimination Against Women (1979) (CEDAW)
Convention Against Torture & Other Cruel,
Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989)
African Charter on Human & Peoples’ Rights
(1981) (ACHPR) (Banjul Charter)
African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the
Child (1990) (ACRWC)
African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on
the Rights of Women in Africa (2003)
(ACHPRRWA) (Maputo Protocol)
‘Signed’: a treaty is signed by countries following negotiation and agreement of its contents.
‘Ratified’: once signed, most treaties and conventions must be ratified (i.e. approved through the
standard national legislative procedure) to be legally effective in that country.
‘Acceded’: when a country ratifies a treaty that has already been negotiated by other states.
1 Liberia’s Constitution of 1986 (1986) Available at https://www.constituteproject.org/constitution/Liberia_1986.pdf.
2 Bettie K. Johnson Mbayo (2017) ‘Liberian Women Protest For Passage of Domestic Violence Bill’, Front Page
Africa, 17 May. Available at http://frontpageafricaonline.com/news/2016news/liberian-women-protest-for-
3 Emma Batha (2018) ‘Liberia bans female genital mutilation – but only for a year, Reuters, 25 January. Available
4 Penal Law – Title 26 – Liberian Code of Laws Revised (1978) Available at
5 An Act to Establish The Children’s Law of Liberia, 2011 (2011) Available at
6 US Department of State (2017) Liberia 2017 Human Rights Report, p.23. Available at
7 Emma Batha (2013) ‘Kidnappers jailed for forcing Liberian woman to undergo FGM’, Thomson Reuters
Foundation, 12 March. Available at http://news.trust.org/item/20130312140000-oa2bp.
8 United Nations Security Council (2011) Security Council Resolution 1325: Civil Society Monitoring Report Liberia.
A project of the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders. Available at http://docplayer.net/34859704-Security-
10 Equality Now (2015) Information on Liberia for Consideration by the Committee on the Elimination of
Discrimination against Women at its 62nd Pre-Sessional Working Group (9–13 March 2015) [correspondence to
CEDAW]. Available at
11 Alvin Worzi (2017) ‘FGM Excluded from Domestic Violence Act’, Daily Observer, 15 August. Available at
12 RT (2018) Liberia imposes 12-month moratorium on female genital mutilation, 26 January. Available at
13 Christin Roby (2018) ‘Liberian executive order banning FGM expected to lack enforcement’, devex, 2 February, Available
Cover image: EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operation (2013) Women of Liberia: Portraits of women
and girls in Montserrado county, Liberia. Available at https://flic.kr/p/e1kLqA.
Please note that the use of a photograph of any girl or woman in this report does not imply that she has, nor has
not, undergone FGM.
This report was prepared in collaboration with TrustLaw, the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s global, legal pro bono
service that connects law firms and legal teams to NGOs and social enterprises that are working to create social and
The information in this report has been compiled in cooperation with Shearman & Sterling LLP from documents that
are publicly available and is for general information purposes only. It has been prepared as a work of legal research
only and does not represent legal advice in respect of any of the laws of Liberia. It does not purport to be complete
or to apply to any particular factual or legal circumstances. It does not constitute, and must not be relied on or acted
upon as, legal advice or create an attorney-client relationship with any person or entity. Neither 28 Too Many,
Shearman & Sterling LLP, the Thomson Reuters Foundation nor any other contributor to this report accepts
responsibility for losses that may arise from reliance upon the information contained herein, or any inaccuracies,
including changes in the law since the research was completed in September 2018. No contributor to this report
holds himself or herself out as being qualified to provide legal advice in respect of any jurisdiction as a result of his or
her participation in this project or contribution to this report. Legal advice should be obtained from legal counsel
qualified in the relevant jurisdiction/s when dealing with specific circumstances. It should be noted, furthermore,
that in many countries there is a lack of legal precedent for the penalties laid out in the law, meaning that, in practice,
lesser penalties may be applied.
Shearman & Sterling LLP
Association of Female Lawyers in Liberia