Growing Numbers of Girls Resist Genital Cutting in Sierra Leone

KAMAKWIE, Sierra Leone — When Seio Bangura’s ultimate highschool examination outcomes arrived not way back, she realized she had earned grades excessive sufficient to get into faculty. It was an exciting second for the daughter of farmers who by no means completed major college. But Ms. Bangura shouldn’t be planning for college. Instead, she spends most days sitting on a bench, watching others head to class or work.

Ms. Bangura, 18, left house nearly 5 years in the past, after her mother and father gave her a selection: to be initiated in a ceremony centered on genital slicing, or depart. The ceremony permits entrance to bondo, or “the society,” a time period for the gender-and-ethnicity-based teams that management a lot of life right here.

“My mom said, ‘If you won’t do bondo, you have to go,’” Ms. Bangura mentioned, her voice low however her chin defiantly raised. The selection reduce her off from her household’s monetary help and left her unable to pay for additional schooling or to marry.

For greater than 20 years, there was a push throughout the growing world to finish feminine genital slicing, a centuries-old ritual tied up in concepts of sexual purity, obedience and management. Today, Sierra Leone is one of just a few international locations in sub-Saharan Africa that haven’t banned it. Cutting continues to be practiced by nearly each ethnic group in each area of the nation. But the observe is now on the heart of intense debate right here.

Progressive teams, many supported by worldwide organizations, are pushing to ban slicing, whereas conservative forces say it’s a vital half of the tradition that’s practiced throughout tribal and non secular strains.

As that battle performs out in the media and in parliament, rising numbers of ladies and younger girls like Ms. Bangura are taking the matter into their very own arms. It is an act of defiance nearly unimaginable a technology in the past: They are refusing to take part in initiation, telling their moms and grandmothers they won’t be a part of bondo.

More than 90 % of girls over 30 in Sierra Leone have undergone genital slicing, in contrast with simply 61 % of these ages 15 to 19, in accordance with the newest household survey on the topic, performed by UNICEF in 2019. The observe is generally carried out on ladies on the onset of puberty, though there are areas of the nation the place it’s completed on ladies who’re a lot youthful.

Refusing bondo comes at nice social value. Women who haven’t joined are, by customized if not by legislation, not permitted to marry; to characterize their communities in spiritual or cultural occasions; to take part in celebrations or funerals; or to function chief or in parliament.

In most instances, the initiation includes excision of the clitoris and labia minora with a razor by a senior society member referred to as a sowei, who has no medical coaching however is believed to be spiritually highly effective. The ceremony is carried out in women-only encampments, which have been as soon as rural however at the moment are generally in cities, generally known as the “bondo bush.”

Laws towards slicing have had uneven enforcement and combined outcomes. Some international locations, reminiscent of Egypt and Ethiopia, have seen charges fall dramatically. But in others, reminiscent of Senegal and Somalia, the decline has been negligible. Globally, the quantity of ladies in danger of being reduce continues to develop, as a result of international locations with out legal guidelines or enforcement towards slicing have massive and quickly rising youth populations.

While Sierra Leone has one of the world’s highest charges of slicing, additionally it is one of the few locations the place the observe appears to be displaying a sustained decline, as increasingly younger girls resist.

Every morning as she will get prepared for college, Isha Kamara and her grandmother, Hawa, debate bondo. Hawa Kamara says it’s excessive time for Ms. Kamara to be initiated. Ms. Kamara, 20, who’s in her final year of highschool and desires to handle a financial institution at some point, says she’s not

All her life, Ms. Kamara, who has lived along with her grandmother since she was orphaned as a small little one, has heard in regards to the plans for her initiation. But after she examine slicing in {a magazine} and heard lectures at college — “They told us that anything God put on our bodies belongs there and should stay” — she began saying she wouldn’t be a part of the society.

Her grandmother warned she’d don’t have any buddies. Ms. Kamara mentioned her buddies have been additionally planning to refuse initiation. Her grandmother warned that she would die single and lonely; Ms. Kamara mentioned she anticipated loads of folks would wish to marry a financial institution supervisor.

Her grandmother tried bribery and promised new outfits. Ms. Kamara simply cocked an eyebrow at that one.

The nagging is most fierce on the times when the sounds of the normal drums echo by means of Port Loko for an initiation. Ms. Kamara has supplied to do a no-cutting bondo, a observe being promoted by some feminist teams, however her grandmother has mentioned that’s nugatory.

Only one counterargument has discovered any resonance: “It’s a lot of money,” Hawa Kamara mentioned, referring to the associated fee of the ceremony. A household should pay the sowei who leads the rites, and stage a feast or contribute to a neighborhood celebration. “I suppose we could spend it on her studies rather than calling people to come for a feast that will be eaten up quickly,” she mentioned.

While huge worldwide organizations reminiscent of UNICEF and U.N. Women are driving the push to finish slicing, the views of many ladies and younger girls are being influenced by homegrown activism. Radio reveals, billboards and touring drama teams have unfold the message that slicing is harmful, may cause critical difficulties for ladies in childbirth, undermines their sexual well being and violates human rights.

Ms. Bangura, who has been dwelling with the household of her pal Aminata since she left her household house, heard the message that slicing was harmful from her pastor at church and from a trainer at college. Most of her buddies have been keen to affix bondo, she mentioned, however, like her, some have been hesitant, they usually mentioned it quietly amongst themselves. This is a major change from years previous. Everything in regards to the society is supposed to be secret, and breaking the taboo of discussing what occurs there, together with the initiation rites, is claimed to deliver the danger of a curse.

The drawback, Ms. Bangura found, is that social change doesn’t occur quick, or neatly.

Kai Samura, who owns the home the place Ms. Bangura stays now, mentioned she thought Ms. Bangura’s household was overreacting. “If they abandon her because she refuses, it’s unjust,” she mentioned.

Ms. Samura, 39, underwent initiation at age 8, however has informed her personal daughters they’re free to decide on, and will wait till they’re 18 to resolve. (Her husband is a vehement opponent of the observe, however says the affair is a lady’s area.)

She reckons she and her husband are much less inflexible about bondo as a result of they stay in a city and social controls are extra lax, however she understands the village view:

Getting a daughter initiated is essential for the household’s social standing, and for the woman’s personal future.

“People don’t hate their kids,” mentioned Chernor Bah, who runs Purposeful, a feminist advocacy group in Freetown that works to finish slicing. “They are making what they perceive as a rational, best-interest decision for the lives of their children.”

A proposed modification to the Child Right Act, which has been underneath assessment by Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Gender and Children Affairs, would codify slicing as a “harmful practice” and make it unlawful to carry out the process on ladies underneath 18. This is much lower than the outright ban than many opponents need. But the trail to outlawing the process shouldn’t be a transparent one. Powerful people and establishments proceed to champion the observe — some overtly, some discreetly — on the grounds that it’s a key half of Sierra Leone’s tradition and values. They typically bolster the declare with the assertion that the anti-cutting motion is a Western import, an try to erode conventional values and a push to promiscuity.

Sierra Leone’s first girl, Fatima Bio, a strong political determine with a public profile as excessive as her husband’s, has mentioned publicly that she underwent slicing and that she has seen no proof that it’s dangerous, however when confronted by activists she agreed to provide the problem additional research.

Sierra Leone’s schooling minister, David Moinina Sengeh, mentioned in an interview that he was “not aware” if schooling about slicing was half of the nationwide curriculum and that he didn’t really feel the topic needs to be addressed in faculties.

“I don’t control what people do at home,” he mentioned.

His position is emblematic of the contested floor of slicing. Dr. Moinina Sengeh, who holds a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is called one of essentially the most progressive figures in Sierra Leone’s authorities. He is credited with ending a ban on pregnant ladies attending college. On slicing, nonetheless, he won’t take a position. The curriculum shouldn’t “be making a moral decision on whether something is good or right” and shouldn’t say, “Get cut or don’t get cut,” he mentioned.

Politicians searching for votes typically volunteer to pay for a mass initiation in a neighborhood — even politicians who’ve publicly opposed slicing, mentioned Naasu Fofanah, a distinguished Freetown entrepreneur and deputy chair of the progressive Unity Party. She mentioned that a number of years in the past, when she was advising a former president, Ernest Bai Koroma, on the problem, she efficiently satisfied most sowei leaders to endorse a ban on slicing youngsters, which, she mentioned, would have been a serious step ahead. But activists searching for a full ban blocked the transfer, she mentioned.

Ms. Fofanah herself underwent the slicing at age 15 and remembers the ache and shock of the precise process (about which she had no forewarning). But she additionally mentioned it was, general, a constructive and affirming ritual.

“It was a beautiful experience for me,” she mentioned, recalling her grandmother main dancers in celebration of her transition into womanhood, and being informed “that nobody’s ever going to speak down to you. You’ve now become this woman.”

It wasn’t exhausting to reconcile what had been completed to her physique, as a result of she knew her mom, her grandmother and her aunts had all been by means of it as effectively. “So you endure, and you’re just like, ‘OK, that’s done, let’s get on with it,’” she mentioned.

Still, Ms. Fofanah, who studied bondo initiation for her masters thesis on the University of Westminster in England, didn’t take her personal daughters for initiation and talked a niece out of it, telling her she “didn’t need it” as a result of the household had ample resources to open different paths for her. Yet, she felt a blanket ban was ill-conceived.

“If we are saying, when it comes to this practice, women cannot express themselves and say, ‘I am 18 or I’m 21 or I’m 30, it’s my culture, I’m going to’ — where do human rights meet my rights as a woman?” she mentioned. “Are you saying I’m not capable of making an informed decision, of saying I want to go through this practice?”

UNICEF surveys have discovered that the proportion of girls who assume that slicing ought to cease is rising steadily; in the newest survey it was almost a 3rd, and the opinion was held throughout schooling ranges. But even girls who mentioned they thought slicing ought to finish typically additionally mentioned they’d ship their very own daughters to bondo; the highest motive they gave was “social acceptance.” In a 3rd of {couples}, girls wished the observe to proceed whereas their husbands mentioned it needs to be ended.

When Sierra Leone skilled an epidemic of Ebola virus from 2014 to 2016, the federal government quickly outlawed the observe, and conventional and religion leaders helped promote the ban. It has since ended, however activists mentioned it made a space for a public dialog about bondo that had by no means existed earlier than, and sure contributed to an increase in younger girls resisting.

A quantity of anti-cutting teams in Sierra Leone have been attempting to build help for another course of, what they name a “bloodless rite,” that preserves the instruction in regards to the position and accountability of girls however doesn’t embody slicing. This method additionally has the benefit of preserving an earnings stream, and social energy, for soweis.

Kadiatu Bangura inherited the position of sowei and estimated that she reduce greater than 100 ladies in the city of Port Loko earlier than her daughter Zeinab, who’s now 22, requested her to stop. Zeinab heard anti-cutting messages at church and confronted her mom, shocked that this was the core of the position her mom was esteemed for holding.

Kadiatu Bangura mentioned she tried to assist her daughter see the entire image: “The bad side is the cutting — but the good side is there is dancing and celebrating and they drum for you and when you lead, they follow.” There was neighborhood and a way of shared values in the society, and the rites with out slicing didn’t have the identical energy, she mentioned.

Nankali Maksud, who leads work on the topic for UNICEF globally, mentioned that the general public dialog about slicing in Sierra Leone, and in different international locations the place the observe has distinguished proponents, had developed. “As people get more educated they are challenging the blanket ‘F.GM. is bad’ messaging,” she mentioned, utilizing an acronym, typically utilized by opponents of the process, for feminine genital mutilation. “UNICEF has had to regroup. We’re now having to be much more clear: We mean in children. We don’t mean in women. Women should have a right to be able to do what they want to do with their bodies.”

In different international locations the place slicing is practiced in some communities however not in others, ladies can discover it simpler to depart house, she mentioned. In Kenya, for instance, there are shelters and organizations that help ladies who resist slicing. Sierra Leone, the place the hegemony of bondo continues to be entrenched, has nothing of the type.

That leaves younger girls who resist the ritual, reminiscent of Seio Bangura, reliant on charity after they discover it. Some flip to industrial intercourse work as one of the few methods a lady on her personal can earn a dwelling. Ms. Bangura generally sells nuts and muffins in the market, attempting to avoid wasting sufficient from the greenback or two she earns each week to pay for school. She goes to church. Mostly, she sits, ready for Sierra Leone to catch as much as her.

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