UN report urges Liberia to act over harmful traditional practices

A UN report released on Friday documents the negative impact on human rights of some traditional and cultural practices in Liberia, including female genital mutilation, forced initiation into secret societies, accusations of witchcraft, trials by ordeal and ritualistic killing.

The report released by the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, draws on in-depth interviews with victims, family members, community leaders, government officials and civil society members between January 2012 and September 2015.

The report shows that such violations disproportionately affect women, children, elderly people, destitute people and those with disabilities.

“Criminal offenses perpetrated through harmful traditional practices often go unpunished due to their perceived cultural dimensions, the report notes.

Some 58 per cent of Liberian women and girls have undergone female genital mutilation (FGM), a practice widely used by a secret society called Sande, says the report.

The report stresses the negative consequences of FGM, which is generally performed without anesthesia, on the health and physical integrity of these women and girls.

Girls’ education is also disrupted as they are often removed from formal schooling to attend bush school and undergo FGM.

The report also documents cases of abductions, forced initiations, torture and rape by members of the male secret society called Poro.

Non-members considered to have transgressed the society’s rules, for instance by trespassing on sacred Poro ground or remaining outdoors during Poro activities, have also at times been forcefully initiated, tortured and, in two documented cases, gang- raped.

The study also notes that accusations of witchcraft are common in Liberia, and often have devastating consequences for the accused, who may be subjected to trial by ordeal, ‘cleansing’ or ‘exorcism’ rituals, expulsion, ostracization, and even death. In many cases documented in the report, trial by ordeal amounted to torture, both physical and psychological, and in some cases even led to death.

The UN study also documents nine cases of suspected ritualistic killings, including three in August and September 2015. The latest case was in Ganta on 29 September, when a motorcycle driver was killed, allegedly for ritualistic purposes.

This sparked riots on 30 September during which a man accused of this alleged ritual murder was killed by an angry mob.

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