Sierra Leone FGM debate; preserve our culture but stop the cutting
The 2014 theme for the International day on zero tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation; ‘Preserve the best in culture and leave harm behind’ is probably the most fitting themes for the topic of FGM/C. The reason being is most advocates in favour of the practice particularly in Sierra Leone would argue that the idea is to preserve our honourable African culture that has been passed on from generation to generation. Some believe the campaign against FGM/C is a form of western imperialism; the white man’s attempt to impose their way of life on us. It is befitting that in getting into the middle of the debate and granting a win win situation to it, we preserve the traditional aspect of the whole notion and omit the harmful aspect.
Membership of the bondo society brings pride and respect to women mainly from the provinces or with heritage from the provinces. It is intended at training young girls the art of womanhood; teaching them how to cook, take care of the home, their children and their husbands. The whole idea seems precious but for the addition of the cutting of the clitoris and the labia. None members of the Bondo society are considered unclean and loose; having an uncontrollable sexual desire. These myths have been a main convincer in getting young girls to join the society.
Some women including a friend of mine willingly got initiated into the society and got cut in order to pursue a political career even though she despised the whole notion of cutting. My friend is not alone, Anthropologist Fuambhai Sia Ahmadu from Sierra Leone who grew up and got educated in the United States returned to Sierra Leone at the age of 21 to get initiated into the Bondo society. She believed FGM/C poses no threats to women’s sex life. She claimed to have been sexually active before having her clitoris and labia cut. “I was surprised to find out that there was absolutely no difference in terms of my sexual experience, sexual feeling, ability to achieve orgasm,” she told SBS insight Australia. Ahmadu who has done extensive research on the practice in West Africa also opined that most women do not consider themselves having been mutilated. "Most women do not experience it as mutilation and would never refer to themselves as mutilated." While some critics believe Ahmadu’s comments cannot be unconnected to a future political ambition as she is currently an adviser to the current government, her very strong statements could seriously impact efforts to challenge the practice in Sierra Leone.
Indeed, Politics play a great part in the FGM/C debate in Sierra Leone. Politicians are unwilling to condemn the practice for fear of losing vital votes especially from the provinces which has the majority of the electorates. Female politicians Mrs Zainab Bangura who was presidential candidate in the 2001 general elections allegedly lost over her anti FGM/C campaign. As founder and head of the Campaign for Good Governance organization, she had been a strong campaigner against the practice. This cost her a great deal as during her political bid; women from the Bondo society in the east of the country pelted stones at her and cursed her for being a betrayer of the institution-which she herself is a member of.
In commemorating the international day on zero tolerance to FGM in 2008, women in the media Sierra Leone with the financial support from Foundacion Hirrondelle held a workshop and other activities to bring the topic of FGM/C into a public debate. Issues were discussed from both those in favour of and against, religious and nonreligious views.
These activities coincided with a nation-wide march by women of the Bondo society; mainly the Soweis. The women march to state house wherein they demanded the support of President Ernest Bai Koroma who actually gave them his backing. Following this, female journalist Florence Carter of Cotton Tree News, who had moderated a radio discussion on FGM/C on the day for the march past, received death threats from unknown women who claimed to be Soweis. Later that same year Manjia Balema Samba of the then UN radio was mobbed in Kenema, Eastern Sierra Leone by women of the Bondo society in the town after an interview she did live explaining some of the horrific health effects of the practice on some girls in the district. She was beaten and stripped and was led to march around the town naked. Even though the police arrived later and intervened, no arrests were made and despite calls by local and international media organizations for further investigations, Samba did not get the justice she deserved.
The practice of FGM has had some long term debilitating effects on some women. While some had to live with the inability to give birth naturally, some had suffered severe virginal fistula, others had had to live with this reality for life time. Francess .A. Cole a US based Sierra Leone author in her autobiography ‘Distant Sunrise; the strength in her pain to forgive’ explains the horrific scene she experienced during the initiation ceremony. She called the bush a camp death.
‘Demons in the night! Oh what a night! The night they came at me in dozens with knives, scissors, razors and machetes. All hungry to drain my innocent blood, I ran but could not get far, because they overcame me and overpowered me. Screaming like wild animals, locked up in metal cages. They sharpen their weapons of spiritual bondage and mental anguish.... fighting back with all my might..................You let them take a part of me that would never be replaced. They left a hole in my heart that would never mend. My childhood snatched away from me.......my sexuality brutally restructured. And I was left in the dark to find my way... my way to the one who gave me life to be nursed to health and beauty.............’ Cole bled severely and fainted once, her elder sister both of whom the FGM/C was done on together with passed out twice. Cole is using her work to educate other women who are struggling to heal from some of the traumatic experiences they endure as a child.
Cole and her sister share similar ordeal with many other Sierra Leone women I have chatted with on the issue of FGM/C. A lady once told me, the trauma left on her is probably responsible for her paranoia, constant depression and lack of commitment to friendship and relationship. ‘I don’t think my parents loved me; no woman who had carried her baby for nine months would want to see her child endure what I went through,’ she had said.
Some of these horrible experiences young people endure in some of our traditional practices are probably the reason people were so heartless during the war; young boys and girls killing, maiming and raping innocent people. Even though drugs played a significant role for their actions, but having gone through some of the horrific experiences children especially in the provinces go through in traditional practices such as Bondo for girls, Poro and Wondei for boys, it hardens one, kill emotions, kills humanity. Imagine a six year old girl as in the case of Cole having to have her clitoris and Labia cut without any anaesthetic; it is torture and murder in broad day light.
FGM/C is believed to be responsible for Sierra Leone’s high maternal mortality rate. Teenage pregnancy is high because after the Bondo society, girls are presumed ready for sex and marital life as a result a lot of them got engaged in sexual activities and in the course some would get pregnant and because of the fracture on their under-developed virgina, they are unable to deliver babies, this compound with the lack of proper medical facilities, most die in the process. A Sierra Leonean woman living in London last year lost her teenage daughter to child birth. The daughter was living in Kenema in Sierra Leone. She blamed her daughter’s death to FGM/C and believed the situation could have been prevented if the daughter was living in the West. She explained that she was having nightmares about her experience with FGM/C and child marriage and had to attend months of counselling services to overcome her horrifying past.
Apparently, the campaign to end the practice cannot be successful without the support of the men. Even though not all Sierra Leonean men are in support of the practice, a good number of men with heritage from the province still believe the practice must be upheld. Some highly educated men need additional education on the topic of FGM/C for them to accept that the cutting is harmful to women’s reproductive health. Important actors like Ahmadu who does not believe in some of the effects of the practice must also be adequately engaged in discussions and policy formulation to give it a full face.
Government commitment is also significant and thankfully, Minister of Social Welfare, gender and children’s affair Moijueh Kaikai this week made a commitment that the government will soon pass a legislation raising the age of consent to 18 years for girls who wish to be circumcised. While this does not mean an end to cutting it is crucial to ending the practice. Since at that age and with education most girls would be able to make informed choices as to whether they want the practice done on them or not.
Furthermore, Sierra Leone needs counselling services for women who have gone through such horrendous experiences. They are living with the experience and is affecting their everyday life. Subsequent effects include mood swing, drug and substance abuse, bad parenting/abusive parents, paranoia and the lack of self love. This is destroying families, homes, communities and subsequently the society.
While I do agree with the idea of us upholding our unique traditions I also believe it is very crucial for us to eschew practices that deemed detrimental to us and especially women and children.