DAKAR — Thursday marks the U.N.-sponsored International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Despite international campaigns, the United Nations says millions of girls in Africa remain at risk. In Liberia, there is no law against it and FGM is still common practice.
It is around this time of year in Margibi County that village women take girls into the forest to induct them into the secret female society known as Sande.
As part of the initiation, they cut off the girls' clitorises.
Women spoke to VOA about the practice on the condition that we not use their names, given the taboo associated with talking about FGM in Liberia.
"This is the time young girls are out of schools so what we do, we get them, take them into the forest to join the Sande Society. We spend more than six months there and we teach them about other traditional practices. To be frank, some die in the process. Some get sick, but we use traditional herbs to cure them. We do not have any [other] option. This is our tradition," said one woman.
These inductions happen in rural communities around the country. It is estimated that about half of Liberian women have been initiated into Sande.
The government has said it is against FGM, but continues to stop short of criminalizing it.
The Ministry of Gender and Development issued a statement in late January calling on communities to not do FGM as part of the Sande initiations, citing its dangers, but the women of the Sande society say they will not stop.
"We heard from government to stop it. How can we stop something that we made here for years? It is part of us,” said one woman.
A girl who has not had her clitoris cut off would not be allowed to attend community meetings or participate in local decision-making. She would be seen as unclean, and could even face accusations of witchcraft later in life.
One girl VOA spoke to was inducted into Sande at six years old. In the two years since, she has been getting infections and having stomach pains.
"They did too many bad things to me. I cannot remember some of them. I spent a long time in the bush. I blame my parents for taking me into the bush. All the time spent in the bush with the society people, I was not going to school. I want to call all parents to not take their children to join the Sande society," she said.
Activists say FGM violates a girl's human rights and puts her at risk for serious health complications, including problems during childbirth.
However, speaking out against FGM can be dangerous in Liberia. In 2012, an activist's home was burned down after she spoke on the topic before the United Nations in New York. A local journalist got death threats after she published an article on FGM.
Vah Tamba, a government social worker at the Margibi County Gender office, frequently receives threats related to his work.
"Sometimes we are threatened not to visit a community. Sometimes they want to harm us. They even want to kill us. It is our work. We have to move forward. We will continue to campaign until there is a change in the practice,” said Tamba.
However, he said that rather than banning FGM, the government is focusing on providing jobs skills training for women involved in the practice to give them another way to earn a living. The idea, he said, is to "distract them" from FGM.
Activists working on women's rights in Liberia told VOA it is going to take time and dialogue to get these communities to change their way.
Prince Collins reported from Margibi County, Liberia.