Working with traditional leaders to end violence against women in West Africa


“We [traditional practitioners] used to teach girls how to behave in the presence of older people, plaiting hair and being modest,” explains Kema Dahn, a community leader and former practitioner of female genital mutilation (FGM) in Nimba County in north-eastern Liberia. “But we are no longer practicing FGM because we realized that it is not necessary. We are now focusing on agriculture and business.”

Working with traditional leaders to end violence against women in West Africa

Traditional FGM practitioners in Tienii, Grand Count Mount, Liberia attend an Alternative Economic Livelihood programme workshop. Photo: UN Women

Fifty per cent of girls and women aged 15 to 49 in Liberia have undergone the harmful practice of FGM, often without their consent. Dahn is one of 300 traditional practitioners who has benefitted from the Alternative Economic Livelihood programme launched in 2019 by UN Women as part of the multi-year EU-UN Spotlight Initiative to Eliminate Violence Against Women and Girls.

FGM is often performed for financial as well as cultural reasons – the livelihood programme provides climate-smart agriculture and business management training to FGM practitioners, so they have alternative ways of earning an income.

“What will make us leave these traditional things is empowerment to start our own businesses,” says Dahn. “I never knew much about farming. The new skills I have learned in agricultural business development and management provided a great opportunity for me to get another source of income.”

Yatta Fahnbulleh, Former traditional practitioner of FGM in Tienii, Grand Cape Mount, Liberia. Photo: UN Women.

Yatta Fahnbulleh was the owner of one of the largest bush schools in Tienii in north-western Liberia, where she initiated girls into adulthood through a series of rituals, including FGM. She has since closed the bush school, and a new vocational and heritage centre that is part of the livelihood programme has been built on the same land.

“The time has come for me to change after 35 years … I feel good about the opportunity to learn and to earn regular income outside of the usual thing I have been doing for years,” says Fahnbulleh. “I see the new project as a good opportunity for all the traditional practitioners across Liberia.”

Traditional leaders critical to changing social norms

Traditional leaders are in a strong position to work with their communities to address the harmful cultural practices that perpetuate negative gender norms and harm women’s and girls’ health and safety. Working with, rather than against, traditional leaders in West Africa is crucial to ending violence against women and girls and promoting women’s empowerment.

In October 2020, despite progress in passing and strengthening formal laws with a focus on ending gender-based violence, the President of Liberia declared rape a national emergency for the next two years (2020–2022). The application and implementation of Liberia’s gender-focused laws has been partially hampered by traditional and community leaders’ inadequate knowledge of the laws.

In 2020, in addition to the livelihood programme, 125 traditional leaders (51 women, 74 men) were educated about Liberia’s laws on domestic violence, inheritance and rape, and each signed a resolution to commit their total support for the use of the formal legal framework to end violence against women.

As part of the Spotlight Initiative, these leaders now serve as champions of change, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, 10 of them were supplied with motorbikes to support the monitoring and reporting of FGM prevention interventions in remote parts of the county.

In June 2021, in nearby Nigeria, the Council of Traditional/Cultural Leaders of Africa (COTLA) committed to redoubling their efforts to end all forms of violence against women and harmful traditional practices across the country.

Members of the Council of Traditional/Cultural Leaders of Africa (COTLA) demonstrate their commitment to redoubling efforts to end all forms of violence against women and harmful traditional practices in Nigeria. Photo: UN Women/Faremi Olanrewaju

Support for the establishment and regular convening of COTLA is provided by the Spotlight Initiative, and at a recent meeting with UN Women, Convenor General of COTLA, His Royal Majesty (Arc.) King Adedapo Aderemi, spoke of the role traditional leaders must have in changing negative social norms and stereotypes.

“Due to lockdowns, reports show an alarming increase in shadow pandemic violence against women and girls. In addition, child labour and sexual exploitation and abuse have increased. As COTLA, we are not bystanders, we are active advocates for establishing laws and policies that end early and child marriage in our communities and create safe spaces.”

COTLA continues to contribute to a shift in negative behaviours and harmful traditional practices, such as the age-long ‘money wife marriage’ practice (where girls are married off to settle debts owed by parents or grandparents) that COTLA has committed to abolishing.

Both the Governments of Liberia and Nigeria have committed to advancing and scaling up prevention strategies by 2026 through the Generation Equality Action Coalition on Gender-based Violence – the first ever multi-stakeholder and inter-generational platform with the objective of creating a compelling political compact and driving long-term change to end gender-based violence.

“FGM has deprived women and girls of their ability to achieve their full potential. We call upon everyone in Liberia to intensify efforts to prevent all forms of violence against women and girls, including FGM, and make the Generation Equality Action Coalition commitments their responsibility,” says Marie Goreth Nizigama, UN Women Country representative for Liberia.

This work is supported by UN Women under the Spotlight Initiative, a global, multi-year partnership between the European Union and the United Nations to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls. In Africa, the Spotlight Initiative aims to eliminate sexual and gender-based violence, including harmful practices, and it is currently scaling up existing initiatives on FGM and child marriage across the region. 

Categorized as Women