Sierra Leone: Government Accused of not Doing Enough to Combat FGM

By Alusine Sesay

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) is widespread in Sierra Leone even though it’s illegal and constitutes harmful practice, according to the laws of Sierra Leone.

According to the 2013 Sierra Leone Demographic and Health Survey by Statistics Sierra Leone, 40.2% of women aged 15–49 who have undergone FGM were cut between the ages of 10 and 14. The Northern region has the highest prevalence with 96.3%, and the Western the lowest, at 75.6%.

According to World Health Organization (WHO), every year two million girls are at risk of being subjected to the practice which is sometimes referred to as female genital cutting or female circumcision. Sierra Leone is one of 28 African countries where female genital mutilation is practiced.

An estimated 200 million girls and women alive today are believed to have been subjected to FGM; but rates of FGM are increasing, according to UNFPA.

The UN Agency estimated that, If FGM practices continue at recent levels, 68 million girls will be cut between 2015 and 2030 in 25 countries where FGM is routinely practiced and more recent data are available.

FGM refers to all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for cultural or other non-medical reasons.

Almost all instances of FGM are performed by traditional cutters (soweis).

FGM is closely linked with the Bondo secret society; the practice forms part of the initiation ritual.

The data shows that 69.2% of women and 46.3% of men aged 15–49 in Sierra Leone believe that the practice should continue.

In the absence of national legislation directly prohibiting FGM in Sierra Leone, there is other legislations in place which could be considered relevant to the practice, including:

▪ The Child Rights Act 2007 sets out the legislative framework to protect persons below the age of 18 years in Sierra Leone. Section 33(1) states: No person shall subject a child to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment including any cultural practice which dehumanises or is injurious to the physical and mental welfare of a child.

▪ The Domestic Violence Act 2007 protects women and children from domestic violence, which is defined under Section 2(2)(e) as including conduct ‘that in any way harms or may harm another person’ and either ‘(i) endangers the safety, health or wellbeing of another person’ or ‘(ii) undermines another person’s privacy, integrity or security’. FGM is not directly mentioned in the Act, however. This law also provides for a person to apply to the court for a prevention order if domestic violence is foreseen.

▪ The Offences Against the Person Act 18618, which is originally a British act and is now part of Sierra Leone’s common law, prohibits the wounding or bodily harm of another person (of any age or gender). However, again, FGM is not directly mentioned.

Kadie Sillah, a campaigner and an expert in sexual and gender-based violence, said that despite these national laws and international treaties Sierra Leone had acceded to, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Violence Against Women (CEDAW), the government is not doing enough to reduce or combat FGM.

She said that there is no evident that such laws have been used to prosecute perpetrators of FGM.

In September 2016, a sowei was arrested in the eastern district of Kenema for breaking the ban during the Ebola crisis and forcing FGM on a 28-year-old woman. The accused was released without charge after protests from a large group of traditional cutters (soweis).

In August 2016, three soweis and a nurse were arrested in the northern city of Makeni following the death of a 19-year-old woman after undergoing FGM during the ban.16 No further details are available.

There are claims that politicians are sponsoring FGM to seek votes from women.

The Executive Director of Amazonian Initiative Movement (AIM-SL), Madam Rugiatu Neneh Turay Koroma, an anti-FGM campaigner, said that in the northern part of country, people have what they call ‘Yanka’ (initiation bush) where girls are kept for three years leading to the tendency of destroying their future, adding that during their stay in the bush, the initiates are denied educational opportunities.

“I want people to know that I am part of the Bondo society and I am proud of it but hate the FGM aspect. We still have the highest infant mortality rate in the world, yet we are scared to talk about FGM which is a contributing factor,” Madam Rugiatu Turay strongly pointed out.

“We want politicians to stop the act of constructing Bondo bushes. They are taking advantage of the high illiteracy rates amongst rural women to promote what will always put them at the back. We must put a stop to this,” Rugiatu said.

She cited that the Bondo society is for women and not children.

“If we do not start to protect our children at this age for them to know that they are being trained into womanhood through our culture, they will think everything about a woman is pain. The Bondo society is an institution where we meet and interact irrespective of our political alliances, educational background, and status. When we are in the society we are all the same and so we want to ensure we bring back the good things that have been eroded,” Rugiatu stated.

She argued that FGM practice is dangerous and harmful, which makes it wrong.

The Minister of Gender and Children’s Affairs, Hon. Manty Tarawalli said, “Sierra Leone is committed to the progressive realisation of the rights of our people based on the freedom to associate and participate in cultural activities…”

The Minister, however, maintained that the Government’s policy that bans FGM on women under the age of 18 years remains in force. She further explained that a MOU was signed with all chiefs and leaders of secret societies which give them authority to monitor and enforce the ban on underage initiation of girls.

The Minister further disclosed that the Ministry of Local Government regulates the activities of these secret societies through the local chiefs. According to her, such initiatives have resulted in a sharp decline in the rate of FGM from 98% in 2007 to 78% in 2019.

Ways of Combating FGM

Rugiatu Turay said education and engagement with soweis and other traditional leaders about the dangers of FGM is key is addressing FGM.

She said that through such education and engagement, in the North-West region, they have organized the first alternative rites of passage. This means that women and girls can go through ‘Bondo’ society without cutting their clitoris.

She said that her organization has worked with religious leaders, schools, soweis and community-based organizations to raise awareness, and have organized a public declaration with over 60 FGM cutters dropping their knives and razors.

Saillah said that enforcement of the laws is a critical aspect in the fight against FGM. He said that when perpetrators/initiators observe that the laws are working they will stop the practice of FGM.

How does FGM affect the health of women and girls?

According to UNFPA, FGM has serious implications for the sexual and reproductive health of girls and women.

Immediate complications of FGM include severe pain, shock, haemorrhage, tetanus or infection, urine retention, ulceration of the genital region and injury to adjacent tissue, wound infection, urinary infection, fever, and septicemia. Haemorrhage and infection can be severe enough to cause death.

Long-term consequences include complications during childbirth, 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 transmission, as well as psychological effects.

Infibulation, or type III FGM, may cause complete vaginal obstruction resulting in the accumulation of menstrual flow in the vagina and uterus.

Note: This was produced with support for Journalist for Human Right (JHR) and the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) 2021 human rights fellowship program.

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