Sierra Leone Struggles to End Female Genital Mutilation

Female genital mutilation is prevalent in Sierra Leone, with rights advocates concerned about its impact on women and girls. The country has no law that outrightly criminalizes the practice, making it daunting to tame.

In Port Loko city, north-west of Sierra Leone, it is common to see women undertake what they consider an important traditional practice – a rite of passage for young girls.

Amid drumming, singing, and dancing, these women who form a group known as “Bondo” go on a street procession to give prominence to an age-old practice.

The traditional role of a wife and mother is conferred on young women during the ritual. However, some aspects of the practice have triggered human rights concerns.

Among the rites of passage for these young girls is subjecting them to female genital mutilation (FGM), which involves the total or partial removal of the external female genitalia, often the clitoris.

According to the Sierra Leonean government, 61% of women aged 15-19 have undergone FGM as compared with about 90% of women aged 45-49.

The United Nations estimates that over 200 million women and girls are survivors of FGM globally.

Those who carry out this procedure say it is to tame the sexual desire of the victims and to protect their virginity before marriage. They also claim it helps young women remain faithful to their husbands.

The World Health Organization has warned that the practice has no health benefits and can lead to urinary, vaginal and menstrual problems. Some women even endure complications during childbirth, leading to death.

Young girls dying from FGM

In January 2024 alone, three children aged 12, 13, and 17 died following complications allegedly associated with the cutting of parts of their genitals.

One of the two hastily buried was exhumed for post-mortem, and the results pointed to excessive bleeding.

Anti-FGM advocates are still pushing the police to exhume the second body for tests as well.

Lamin Santigie Kamara, a police detective and regional crime officer of the North-West Region, told DW that the father of one of the victims gave her out to be initiated.

“According to the evidence now at hand, she was subjected to the [rite] by her father. Her father gave her to be initiated,” Kamara said.

The parents of the victim are in police custody helping with the investigation, Kamara explained, adding that police are also pursuing two suspects, a woman who took part in the mutilation and a local chief. Both are on the run.

UN human rights experts in 2022 called for stronger measures to penalize female genital mutilation in Sierra Leone, following criminal proceedings on the death of a 21-year-old student who was subjected to the brutal practice in Bonthe District.

The experts said in a statement that “The lack of a dedicated and enforceable legislation that expressly criminalises and punishes female genital mutilation is hindering judicial or other investigation into, and persecution of, these harmful practices and unlawful killings.”

The UN experts stressed that laws and policies need to provide clear accountability frameworks and disciplinary sanctions with respect to female genital mutilation.

Reviewing laws to deal with FGM

The government of Sierra Leone is under pressure to establish partnerships with local practitioners to amend the Child Rights Act to explicitly prohibit female genital mutilation for all age groups.

The 2007 Child Rights Act of Sierra Leone only protects children, requiring their consent to join such Bondo societies for the rites, but doesn’t criminalize genital cutting.

Sierra Leone’s Minister of Gender and Children’s Affairs, Dr Isata Mahoi, told DW that the current law has some challenges that need fixing.

We identified gaps in this particular Act, so now the government is in the process of reviewing this Act,” she said.

The bill to review the act was sent to Parliament last year but has yet to be passed into law.

“So, the Bill is still there [parliament]. What we’re doing presently is consulting with the wider community to ensure that everybody is involved in the process,” Mahoi said.

“We want every key stakeholder, like the paramount chiefs, the soweis [women who carry out the cutting], those that are actually doing the initiations, female genital mutilations in what we call bondo, and other key stakeholders; even the parliamentarians, because sometimes, people associate the practice of FGM and politics.”

The role of chiefs as influencers

The government also hopes to gain traditional leaders’ support in stopping the practice. Chiefs can be profoundly influential in helping citizens make informed decisions.

Traditional leader Chief Pa Alimamy Conteh of Gbakeloko Chiefdom in the Port Loko District told DW he and other chiefs could help fight the bad practice.

“Of course, I’m one of the most vibrant contributors that discourage having the children underage [go through the practice],” Conteh said.

“We, the chiefs, should team up to discourage these people so that they’ll avoid making their children less than eighteen years old, join this bondo society,” the traditional leader said. He defended the Bondo society, saying it was primarily set up to train young women about their role in marriage. “Bondo society is not for cutting.”

An alternative rite of passage

In recent years, though, other activists have joined the fight against FGM in Sierra Leone.

Nenneh Rugiatu Abu Koroma, an international award-winning anti-FGM advocate, has now introduced another rite of passage for girls that does not include the act of cutting the genitals of young girls.

She told DW more parents and young girls desire her version of initiation rites, a signal of gradual transformation.

“So, somebody called me to say, “‘We imitated your strategy of alternative rites of passage here in Yoni because we wanted our girls to go through the Bondo culture. We believe what you have introduced is good,'” Koroma told DW.

The anti-FGM campaigner said she had received similar feedback from Bo, Sierra Leone’s second-largest city. “It means people are beginning to understand, to accept the reality of change. We need to continue to do this and by the time we will know it, the alternative rite of passage would have taken over.”

Koroma, who is the 2020 recipient of Germany’s Theodor Haecker Human Rights Prize, for her determination to end female genital mutilation, said there is a lot of work to be done to bring about change.

Edited by: Chrispin Mwakideu

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