Liberia's traditional leaders work to eliminate FGM and harmful practices

Five men and women smiling and raising fists in the air
Chief Wilfred Garh and the National Traditional Council of Chiefs and Elders of Liberia are working to eliminate gender-based violence and harmful practices. Photo: UNRCO/Derick Snyder
January 8, 2024

GRAND GEDEH COUNTY, Liberia - The Traditional Chiefs and Elders of Zwedru, Grand Gedeh County in Eastern Liberia have partnered with Spotlight Initiative in their quest to eradicate female genital mutilation (FGM) in the region.

Chief Wilfred Garh, a member of the National Traditional Council of Chiefs and Elders of Liberia, and Ma Rebecca Yaoh, a respected Head of the Women’s Zoes in Grand Gedeh County, share their inspiring stories of personal growth and community transformation.

Chief Wilfred Garh, 75, is the Co-Chairman for Administration of the Traditional Council. Initially drawn to the security sector, he later became involved with the Poro Society, a form of traditional school or training institution for boys, which deepened his understanding of Liberian history, culture and traditions.

Two seated men in traditional dress
Photo: UNRCO/Derick Snyder

"Growing up, I believed that traditional practices held the key to a better and transformed lifestyle," Chief Garh says. "However, misbeliefs and misconceptions clouded our judgment. We believed that education from the Poro or Sande Bush School (forms of traditional school or training) were the only way to success and that traditional investigations, such as the Sassywood method, were superior to court proceedings."

Sassywood is a form of trial by ordeal which is performed against people accused of committing crimes. 

"We treated perpetrators [of violence] harshly instead of seeking justice from state authorities. Women and girls were subjected to unequal treatment, and reporting rape was considered taboo," he says.

"Rape is now recognized as a human rights issue." - Chief Wilfred Garh, traditional leader


Things changed when Spotlight Initiative reached Grand Gedeh County. Spotlight Initiative partners with traditional chiefs and elders to combat harmful practices that perpetuate inequality and violence.

"With the support of Spotlight Initiative's training programme, we now understand that [some of] what we considered traditional practices were, in fact, harmful," Chief Garh explains.

"We have learned alternative methods to settle disputes and conduct proper investigations through interviews and court processes. We have started to respect and value our wives, women and girls, treating them with love and care. Education has taken precedence over the Poro and Sande Bush Schools, because we now recognize that it is the key to success. The Sassywood method has been abandoned in favour of fairer means of justice, and rape is now recognized as a human rights issue, requiring the involvement of state authorities to protect survivors and prosecute perpetrators."

Chief Garh proudly affirms that the traditional chiefs and elders have wholeheartedly embraced the change.

"I am empowered to uplift myself and contribute positively to our community." - Ma Rebecca Yaoh, traditional leader


Ma Rebecca Yaoh, 63, is another shining example of transformation within the community. Through her participation in Spotlight Initiative training, she decided to stop practising FGM and found a new purpose as a midwife and farmer.

"I used to be a practitioner of FGM, believing it was a necessary tradition," says Ma Yaoh. "But the training program opened my eyes to the harm it caused. Today, I have become an advocate for change and have redirected my efforts toward agricultural activities. Through farming, I am empowered to uplift myself and contribute positively to our community."

Her transformation has had a ripple effect, inspiring up to 50 women Zoes (traditional leaders) to follow her example and leave FGM behind.

As Grand Gedeh County witnesses the collective transformation of its traditional chiefs, elders an communities, Spotlight Initiative continues to play a crucial role in empowering the community to embrace change. By challenging deep-rooted beliefs and fostering dialogue, the initiative is opening doors to a brighter future where harmful practices can become a thing of the past.

The journey is not without challenges, as logistic constraints and limited resources hamper progress. However, Chief Wilfred Garh remains hopeful, emphasizing the need for continued support and funding to fully realize their vision of a society free from harmful practices.

Through the combined efforts of the Spotlight Initiative, the Traditional Council and the dedicated community members, Grand Gedeh County is paving the way for a more inclusive and progressive Liberia, where the rights and well-being of all individuals are protected.

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