As the United States fights over abortion rights, in other countries there continues to be a prolonged fight to protect women and young girls from the violence of mutilation. It is time to end the rampant practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) in Sierra Leone. According to Amnesty International “Sierra Leone is one of the world’s worst offenders for FGM – 90% of women are subjected to the practice. FGM, sometimes known as ‘cutting’, involves removing all or part of the external genitalia for non-medical reasons. Sierra Leone it seems is failing in its obligations under several of the UN conventions such as the Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women “CEDAW.” For decades Sierra Leonean politicians both male and female of all political affiliations have attached themselves to powerful secret societies that continue this practice, like the Bondo Society. I like many women and girls from Sierra Leone was subjected to female genital mutilation as part of my initiation into the Bondo Society.
Although there is a growing resistance to FGM, membership in the Bondo Society is an expectation and in some families young women and girls who do not join are shunned. The Bondo Society for females and the Poro/Soko Society for males are embedded into the culture and traditions of Sierra Leone and viewed as the epitome of leadership. Sadly, the reliance on tradition and culture has allowed injustices on young women and girls including challenges to maternal health.
Every year thousands of girls and women between infancy and adulthood are cut because politicians of various political affiliations have asked the traditional female leaders of the Bondo Society known as Soweis to initiate girls. Politicians align themselves with the Sowei Council to gain access to its leadership structures including the Soweis. Prior to these initiation ceremonies parents of these young girls and women are often coerced to vote for the politician who has sponsored that Sowei. Often the initiations become a showcase of power and intimidation by the political aspirants to their opponents.
Culture v Human Rights
To keep their relationship with the secret societies sustained, political and traditional leaders must amongst other things help fund the initiation of mostly young girls. In almost all secret societies every member must be subjected to a form of initiation process which is where female genital mutilation occurs. In many instances, parents cannot refuse the request to have their daughters mutilated for fear of reprisal from the female traditional leaders themselves. Often these initiations are forced.
No political will
In trying to persuade the government of Sierra Leone to act and exert political will in the elimination of FGM, activists including myself wrote to the President Julius Maada Bio. In the government’s acknowledgment of that letter the Speaker of Parliament, Hon. Dr. Abass Chernor Bundu said, “he was not against the Bondo Society, but shared their concern that FGM be outlawed in the country” and went on say “it was hard to change tradition, but as a great believer in change, good traditions needed to be preserved while discarding bad ones”.
Time for Change
Of course, the Bondo Society’s activities are not limited to FGM. I am not against the Bondo Society as a cultural institution that seeks to validate women’s voices through a common collective. However, what I and other survivors do oppose is the inhumane and dehumanizing harms done to women and girls’ bodies–while also eroding their human rights. I dream of a Sierra Leone where women and girls are free to live their lives without the fear of being subjected to extreme forms of violence. In line with the United Nations sustainable development goal 5 (SDG5) the Government of Sierra Leone must take the necessary steps to enact laws to ban FGM and implement policies that will ensure women and girls will be safeguarded, protected, and educated about the risks associated with the practice.
By Alimatu Dimonekene
The author is a Public Voices Fellow on Advancing the Rights of Women and Girls through The OpEd Project.