According to the United Nations Sierra Leone has one of the highest rates of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Africa and is among the few African countries where the practice is not illegal.
The Reuters Foundation reports that FGM in Sierra Leone in women aged between 15 and 49 is 89.6%, with the highest prevalence of 96.3% in the Northern region. The young girls and women within this age range underwent the barbaric procedure between the ages of 10 and 14.
The report further details that almost all instances of FGM are performed by traditional cutters, locally referred to ‘soweis’ and is closely linked with secret societies that practice it a part of an initiation ritual.
In 2019 Sierra Leone issued a ban on initiations as announced by the Minister of Local Government and Rural Development, Anthony Brewah in a letter to regional ministers.
“(The) government has with immediate effect banned initiation countrywide,” the letter read.
The long-term consequences of FGM include anaemia, the formation of cysts and abscesses, keloid scar formation, damage to the urethra resulting in urinary incontinence, dyspareunia (painful sexual intercourse), sexual dysfunction, hypersensitivity of the genital area and increased risk of HIV.
In addition, a study published in The Lancet (medical journal), made the strongest link yet between extreme forms of female genital mutilation and female infertility. According to their research findings, girls who have undergone genital mutilation in childhood could be at risk of infertility later in life.
It is reported that authorities in Sierra Leone and neighbouring Liberia are unwilling to introduce legislature against FGM because of the power of the secret societies also known as ‘bondo’.
Despite the numerous negative implications, the government therefore only banned the practice in response to political violence related to men’s and women secret societies.
The ban was however a step in the right direction. Founder of grassroots anti-FGM group Amazonian Initiative Movement, Rugiatu Turay told Reuters at the time that, “We want to make sure that the government knows that the bodies of women are not battle grounds.”
“We want to know what they will do to protect women, and how they will make sure the ban is enforced?”
The activist also spoke to the World Health Organization about the importance of involving the soweis in the campaign to end FGM saying, “Educating people is empowering them. It is only through their minds that you can change the attitude of people.” This speaks to the belief many people in Sierra Leone have that abandoning FGM would be an abandonment of cultural tradition.
“We have been able to get about 700 practitioners from 111 villages to drop the practice,” Turay told the organisation.
The country has maintained its progress with UN Women recently tweeting that, “60 Soweis, leaders of female initiation rites, have pledged to abandon and advocate against FGM, transforming community attitudes and girls’ lives.”
Congratulations to Sierra Leone! In a historic step to end female genital mutilation, 60 Soweis, leaders of female initiation rites, have pledged to abandon and advocate against FGM, transforming community attitudes and girls’ lives. pic.twitter.com/F4jVwCkP4v
— UN Women (@UN_Women) January 16, 2020