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Sierra Leone
Saturday, July 2, 2022

Impact of FGM on Sierra Leonean women

By Alhaji Haruna Sani

In Sierra Leone, Madam Yoko, an 18th century female paramount chief, is credited by historians to have founded the Bondo society. According to historians, she used the traditional practice to prepare girls for marriage and womanhood.

The Bondo Society, which is widely referred to as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) by the West, is believed by some women, to be a rich female cultural practice in many African countries. Many believe that children and young ladies are initiated into the society by way of honouring cultural rite, preparing them for womanhood and shape their character.

The traditional ceremony is observed in a secluded bush or house forbidden to non-members. After weeks of skills acquisition and shaping of character, the initiates are brought out of the shrine for their relatives and other people to see. They are usually dressed in special clothes with white clay on their bodies. The white clay symbolizes purity and the special clothes signify newness and innocence. The entire ceremonial processes usually ends  up in  creating huge financial burden on families.

Hassanatu Kamara, not her real name, who resides in Freetown, the country’s capital, explains the tribulations she has been going through since after her forceful initiation into the ‘Bondo’ society (Female Genital Cutting).

Born in a small village called Waiima in the Eastern region of Sierra Leone; Hassanatu Kamara was the only daughter to her parents and the youngest among her six brothers. Her aunt took her to Freetown when she was 7 years old with the intention of educating her because she was not only beautiful but also smart and intelligent.

Hassanatu’s parent unanimously consented to handing her over to her aunt because they wanted their daughter to become a medical doctor. As she grew up, her dream of becoming a medical doctor was shattered by forceful initiation into the Bondo society.

She was in JSS3 preparing for the Basic Education Certificate Examinations (BECE) when  her parents telephoned her aunt whom she lived with, requesting for the daughter to travel to Waiima village for an emergency family arrangement.

Not knowing that her parents had secretly arranged with ‘sowies’/initiators to get her initiated into the bondo society which involves FGM, Hassanatu travel the next day. A day after her arrival, their house was surrounded around 6am by women who grabbed her, took her to the bush and forcefully initiated her into the Bondo society.

“After my initiation, I was bleeding for three days. Different herbs were applied on me in order to stop the bleeding, but things did not get better. Following my persistent complications, I was taken to a nearby community health center where I spent about a month undergoing treatment. I was discharged in the hospital without complete cure. Since then, my life  completely turns up-side down and I am no longer enjoying my womanhood. After that awful incident, my schooling also came to a halt, and that was how my dream of becoming a medical doctor faded away,” sobbing Hassanatu explained.

She also disclosed that, since after her forceful initiation, she was never able to conceive or give birth to a child. She explains that she also experience unbearable pain before and during her menstruation and other complications she cannot explain.

Besides Hassanatu, other women have grossly suffered the negative impact of FGM. Musu Saamu not her real name also explains how she lost her 28 years sister who died in the hands of “sowies”; initiators due to unremitting bleeding. The matter was initially reported to the police, but politicians stood firm to bury the matter.

“My sister who had an eight month baby girl was dragged to the Bondo bush for a forceful initiation, after she was accused by some family members of being promiscuous. They claimed her promiscuity was as a result of her not being initiated into the Bondo society,” she intimated.

She said the incident happened in 2017 when campaign was ongoing for the 2018 elections therefore politicians interfered into the matter and got rid of it. 

In 2012, eight of the country’s fourteen districts signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) criminalizing FGM among children (in Western Area Rural, Western Area Urban, Bo, Kambia, Port Loko, Pujehun, Bonthe, and Kailahun) but the practice continues in many parts of these districts without any consequences for offenders.

FGM has been recognized by Human Rights Organisations as a violation of the rights of girls and women. But women and girls who have not been cut are often frowned at and prohibited from taking part in certain community functions especially in rural communities of the country.

The Sustainable Development Goal has also seek to abolish all harmful practices including female genital mutilation which is a gross violation of human rights. The 2018 World Bank’s Compendium of International and National Legal Frameworks on FGM indicate that about 60 countries have adopted anti FGM laws because it is a harmful cultural and traditional practice.

Sierra Leone is a member of several international human rights conventions which recognize FGM as a violation of human rights. However, there is no prohibition of FGM, or any explicit law against the practice in Sierra Leone. Although the 2007 Child Rights Act supersedes all other national laws related to children’s rights, the FGM clause was removed from the final version during parliamentary debate.

In 2014, the government of Sierra Leone placed a countrywide ban on FGM to control the spread of the Ebola Virus Disease. Individuals found guilty of carrying out the practice were fined; this action led to the reduction in the prevalence of reported FGM cases.

But the practice naturally resumed and has since then continued uninterrupted until recently in 2020 when Covid-19 pandemic ravage the country than another ban was instituted, though was never effective. Reports of women and girls being kidnapped and forced to undergo the cut are remains common. 

Parents who took their female children to be initiated in to Bondo have the responsibility of paying initiation fee, feeding them twice per day with sufficient ingredients in the source including meat or fish and enough vegetable oil or palm oil. They also spend huge money to purchase expensive clothing, cosmetics and other materials including hiring of musical set which could be used for three days or more. All the aforementioned rites causes huge economic burden on those parents and by extension add to the level of poverty in the country.

The United Nations Children’s Fund, World Health Organization (WHO) UNESCO, and other anti-FGM organizations have adopted various strategies in order to raise awareness and work toward ending FGM

FGM/C includes all procedures that involve the partial or total removal of external genital or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons

FGM is performed mainly on children and adolescents and has a ritual origin. The procedure is painful and traumatic, and there are no health benefits.  

All forms of FGM/C carry the risk of adverse health consequences and almost all girls and women who have undergone the procedure experience pain and other complications just as in the case of Hassanatu.

According to the WHO Immediate health complications include shock, hemorrhage, and infection. FG-M/C can also cause death, disability, miscarriage, stillbirth, and problems during urination, infertility, ovarian cysts, and open sores in the genital region, and bacterial infections (tetanus or sepsis).

The long-term health risks of FGM/C include chronic pain, infection, keloids, fibrosis, primary infertility, and psychological suffering, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

Following recent reported tragic deaths in Sierra Leone as a result of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), 130 organisations from across the country and around the world signed a strong petition in an open letter urging the government to criminalize FGM and protect women and girls from this harmful practice. In another development, the United Nations also declared FGM Victim as disable women.

Maseray Sei, 21, died on December 20, 2021, a day after being subjected to FGM, from severe hemorrhage and shock, as verified by a post-mortem on January 14, 2022. A 15-year-old girl was rushed to hospital for urgent care after experiencing major problems as a result of FGM a few days after Maseray’s death in a separate district.

According to 2019 UNICEF report, Sierra Leone has one of the highest FGM prevalence rates in Africa, with 83 percent of women and girls aged 15 to 49 years having had the surgery.

Having a legal framework which states FGM is unacceptable and unlawful is a vital component of promoting the social and behavioral change needed to encourage people at the community level to abandon the practice.

Importantly, by criminalizing FGM, Sierra Leone’s government would be meeting their commitments to the African Union’s Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa (the Maputo Protocol) and to the UN Convention on the Elimination Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

Anti-FGM Campaigners led by Rugiatu Nenneh Koroma nee Turay have also earlier submitted petition to the Speaker of Parliament Hon. Chenor Abass Bundu for onward transmission to the Head of State, and Leaders of political parties in Parliament, with a view to outlawing FGM practices in Sierra Leone.

The Speaker made it categorically clear that he was not against the Bondo Society, but shared the concern of the campaigners that FGM be outlawed in the country, whilst acknowledging that it might sound unpalatable to a certain section of society for traditional reasons.

He also stated that he knew it was hard to change tradition, but as a great believer in change, good traditions needed to be preserved while discarding bad ones.

He further stated that no society could afford to remain backward and primitive forever and that it was natural for countries to go through an evolutionary process and Sierra Leone is no exception.

Sadly, these are not isolated incidents in Sierra Leone. Many women and girls in recent years have died or experienced devastating harm as a result of FGM.

FGM/Bondo is a politically sensitive topic in Sierra Leone. Therefore, no ruling government will be willing to institute laws that will criminalize the practice.

In fact, one of the easiest and successful methods of political campaign in Sierra Leone especially in the provinces is by sponsoring the free initiation of as many girls as possible within their ward, chiefdom, constituency and sometimes district.

To put an end to the practice, both ruling government and opposition political parties need to be fully and equally involve so that none will fear losing grassroots political support during elections.

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