Ending female genital mutilation (Part II)

Last week I outlined how the passage of the 2007 Child Rights Act in Sierra Leone has curbed the incidence of female circumcision among girls below the age of 18. However, the practice is still highly prevalent. About 90 per cent of women in the country undergo some form of ceremonial circumcision.

Before the child rights law, the sowies (initiators) made a decent living from initiating about a hundred girls a year and charging up to 60,000 leones (about $15) per client. That’s a considerable amount of money in the local context. Apart from this, the girl’s family or prospective in-laws come bearing palm wine, fabric, chickens and rice among other offerings. 

But since they’ve consented to stop circumcising children, business has slowed down to a trickle. Haja Konneh, head initiator for the Mende community in Grafton, a suburb of Freetown, says that her children don’t go to school because she doesn’t make enough money. Many like her are now willing to give up the profession altogether, in exchange for an alternate source of livelihood.
Most initiators are handpicked to be sowies as children, before they have any say in the matter. So they’ve never been trained to do anything else. Dopojo, a young, fragile woman I met in Grafton, was nine years old when her mother, a senior sowie, decided that her daughter would follow in her footsteps. ‘I want to be a tailor but now I have no money or expertise to start a business,’ she says, adding that her daughter would be able to choose her own career. 

Progressively minded initiators in different parts of the country are now asking for skills training and small loans in exchange for laying down their knives. In Grafton, Sabi Yu Right, a small local NGO, is offering sewing lessons to some of the initiators but so far there have been few official interventions. ‘Now that they’ve passed these child rights and gender laws, shouldn’t the Government be offering us packages when putting the law into practice?’ asks Konneh. 

Some see this as the sowies holding the Government to ransom over the FGM issue. But it’s important to remember that child initiations meant additional income. Now, with this segment of the market off limits, there’s been a sizeable dip in earnings. And that’s where both the opportunity and the danger lie. Soko Kamara, head of the Temne community sowies in Grafton, warns that if they don’t receive any help soon, they’ll be forced to go back to initiating children. ‘Even if someone brings a two-year-old, I will perform the circumcision,’ she says.

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