Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a sensitive topic in Sierra Leone, the kind that gets dissidents kidnapped and attracts malicious threats. It's a longstanding rite of passage, the slicing of a young girl's clitoris that marks the transition into womanhood. If not initiated, it is feared that she will choose promiscuity over married life.
Recently some progress has been made towards eliminating FGM, by addressing the women that actually perform the ceremony, the sowies (initiators). Many have agreed to stop forcing girls below the age of 18 to undergo circumcision. Also, in some parts of the country they've consented to give it up as altogether if provided an alternate source of livelihood.
Human rights groups have been beating their drums against FGM for years. The process of initiation has less controversial aspects, such as training in singing, dancing and how to manage household chores, but it's the actual circumcision part that is hotly debated.
One of the main concerns is the initiation of teenage girls. Traditionally, young girls are taken into the bush as soon as they hit puberty, although different ethnic groups do it at different ages. Some initiate girls as young as three and five and sometimes even a month-old baby.
In 2007, the Government of Sierra Leone passed the Child Rights Act, which prohibits acts of cruelty against children. The Act doesn't explicitly decry FGM, presumably because the practice enjoys a considerable amount of political endorsement. A number of local NGOs, however, have been travelling around the country sensitizing sowies about child rights and the need for informed consent to circumcision. As a result, a growing number are on board with only initiating adult women.
I met with one of these NGOs in the village of Grafton in the outskirts of Freetown. The group is Sabi Yu Right (Know Your Rights) and they've registered 60 initiators in the vicinity from the two main ethnic groups in Sierra Leone, the Mendes and the Temnes. Haja Konneh, head initiator of the Mendes in Grafton, says that they had signed a memorandum of understanding with Sabi Yu Right that stated they would only initiate girls who came in willingly and were over 18. 'Sometimes a girl who is 17 comes in but we send her back and tell her to come back in a year,' she says. Soko Kamara, the Temne chief, adds that it is easier to conduct the ceremony if the woman is emotionally mature, instead of a wailing adolescent who doesn't understand what is happening to her.
Konneh and others have been talking to sowies from different parts of the country and educating them about human rights and the Child Rights Act. The reception has been lukewarm at best, especially in the north. 'Sowies there get very upset if you talk about making any changes in their traditional practices,' she says.
In the progressive areas a pro-choice attitude means that more women now have the freedom to reject FGM, and many in the bigger cities are opting out of it. Refusing to circumcise children has taken a toll on business. Kamara says that before the Act was put into place, they used to initiate about a 100 girls a year. This year, she hasn't had a single client so far and their conscience compels them to turn underage girls away. But the fact that they're keeping their word is an encouraging step in the right direction.
My next blog will deal with whether sowies can be tempted to give up the practice altogether, with financial inducements.