By Ornella Darova
In May, I had the opportunity to visit Sierra Leone with the purpose of collecting useful information to design a randomized controlled trial aimed at hindering the prevalence of female genital cutting (FGC). I met several very well-known NGOs – Save The Children, World Health Organization, Health Poverty Action, International Rescue Committee, as well as local and smaller NGOs like AMNET, the Amazonian Initiative and the Forum on Harmful Traditional Practices. I also met representatives from the Department for International Development of the UK and the International Growth Centre.
During these meetings, I had the opportunity to deepen my knowledge about the phenomenon of FGC, its health and socio-economic consequences, what is the public opinion on the topic, the role of local politicians and community representatives, and how organizations are attempting to face it.
Currently, in Sierra Leone, according to the last available DHS (2016), almost the 90% of women are cut. The incidence is extremely high in rural areas and is very slightly fading out in urban areas, especially among more educated and rich households.
The cutting is considered a fundamental step in the life of a woman: it is part of the initiation ritual of the Bondo society, the all-female secret society, which is very widespread in West Africa. The Bondo society has existed for hundreds of years and features a complex hierarchy where the main leaders are called “soweis”. Depending on their grade, they can wear different types of headcloths. It can be noticed in this picture of a focus group we had in a village close to Port Loko, in the western part of Sierra Leone: the women of the highest grade wear a white and red scarf over their head. This was one of the most meaningful moments of my trip to Sierra Leone. I had the opportunity to listen to the opinions and ideas of the local representatives, to understand their deep respect for traditions and local culture, and to discover in more detail how the Bondo society is structured and how the rituals are performed.
In order to reach the highest grades and become soweis, women have to live inside the so-called “Bondo bushes” for a very long period of time, that can reach 2 years. Those are very small huts to which only the initiated girls and women can have access. There are countless bushes in the country, even more than one per village. The structure is articulated in different slots that correspond to different stages of the rituals. I was not allowed to enter inside them or get more than 10 meters close.
The soweis are those who perform the cut and the whole initiation procedure, in exchange for a quite high fee, that can reach 200$. Therefore, this tradition is a relevant source of income for the soweis, which as already mentioned, are considered leaders and reference points in the villages. This is very well known by local politicians, who frequently support FGC and sometimes even pay the fees in villages during electoral campaigns, in exchange for the support of soweis, which have great influence on the voting choices of local communities. As a matter of fact, rural communities are much more numerous than urban communities in Sierra Leone: therefore, there are more votes to conquer in the villages than in towns.
During the initiation, girls are taught to sing, dance, cook, take care of the children, take care of their bodies and hygiene and so on: basically, they are taught how to be women, wives, mothers. But the harmful part of the tradition – FGC – causes several threats to the girls’ health. The excessive bleeding, the infections and the harm due to the soweis immobilizing the girls are all very common consequences of the genital cutting. In addition to this, there are serious psychological repercussions, weighted as well by the fact that the girls during the process are generally alone and do not come along with their mothers or relatives. While we were in Sierra Leone, two activists told us their touching stories, how FGC was performed to them and the psychological and the health consequences they suffered. The profound wounds they had were evident, and we are extremely grateful to them for having shared with us such a personal and delicate aspect of their lives. Women in Sierra Leone, though, very frequently do not acknowledge the fact that the symptoms they see on their bodies are linked to FGC and are not fully aware of the danger of the procedure, especially as far as long-term consequences are concerned.
At the end of the initiation, there is an event that involves the whole community and celebrates the initiation, during which the initiated girls bring the so-called “Bondo Devil”, a black mask, and perform traditional dances.
Usually, after the cut girls suffer from bleeding and pain for many years. This fact hampers their concentration at school, which is why they very usually drop out of school after the initiation. As they are considered women once initiated, they usually get married and have children when they’re still very young. This means that FGC has very important socio-economic consequences as well.
The process, according to the DHS of 2016, usually happens during puberty: 12 years old is the mean and 13 is the median. In general, the cutting is supposed to be performed before any sexual intercourse. Moreover, since more and more girls are protesting against it, many parents have started to have the cutting done earlier, during infancy, so that the child cannot have a say in the decision. This is why many organizations are trying to advocate for a law that pushes the minimum age for FGC to 18 years old. In this way, they argue that the process wouldn’t be on a minor, of course, and girls could have an autonomous decision.
The issue though, according to Rugiatu Turay, former Deputy Minister of Social welfare, is that the girls wouldn’t be free to choose anyway. The tradition involves the whole community and cannot be an individual and autonomous decision. It is normally considered a matter of family pride, inclusion in the community and status, as it leads to the participation in the Bondo society. It has links with the marriage market as well. Therefore, the only way to go, in her opinion, is to preserve the initiation process, which is part of the local tradition and includes useful and constructive elements for the growth of the girls and for the social cohesion of the community, while excluding the harmful part. That is what Turay calls “Bondo without cutting”. Community engagements and the involvement of local leaders is needed in order to make culture and traditions evolve according to what is the best for the girls’ both psychological and physical health, as well as their education and subsequent occupation opportunities, and their marriage and household decisions. This would be a big scale approach involving the whole villages, rather than an individual approach, which at the same time takes into account the complex hierarchy of leaders.
A tradition and culture friendly approach is strongly needed when dealing with this delicate and politically loaded phenomenon. As a matter of fact, many people in the country are arguing that organizations fighting against FGC only want to impose western ideas and destroy local traditions. This is simply counterproductive, of course. And this is probably the reason why I found out that almost no organization is explicitly dealing with this social norm in the country, except for very few exceptions, like UNICEF or a few local NGOs. Working on this phenomenon will be a complex challenge, but the health of girls should come first, and an effective policy must be found.