Increasing number of girls oppose genital cutting, risking society’s retaliation

Kamakwi, Sierra Leone — When Seo Bangura’s final high school exam results came out not long ago, he discovered he had earned enough grades to get into college. It was a thrilling moment for this daughter of farmers who had never completed primary school. But Bangura is not planning a university. Instead, she spends most of the day sitting on a bench, watching others walk to class or to work.

Bangura, 18, left home about five years ago, when her parents gave her a choice: to cut the genitals, or to take initiation into a ceremony focused on the holiday. The ceremony allows the entry of the bondo, or “society”, a term for the gender-and-ethnicity-based groups that control most of life here.

“My mother said, ‘If you don’t do Bondo, you’ll have to go,'” said Bangura, his voice low but his chin worked up courageously. The choice cut her off from her family’s financial support and left her unable to pay for further education or marriage.

There has been a push for more than two decades across the developing world to end female genital cutting, a centuries-old ritual tied in ideas of sexual purity, obedience and control. Today, Sierra Leone is one of the few countries in sub-Saharan Africa that has not banned it. Cutting is still practiced by almost every ethnic group in every region of the country. But this practice is now at the center of intense debate here.

Progressive groups, backed by several international organizations, are pushing for a ban on cutting, while conservative forces say it is an essential part of the culture that is practiced across tribal and religious lines.

As the battle rages on in the media and parliament, an increasing number of girls and women like Bangura are taking the matter into their own hands. It is an act of defiance almost unimaginable from a generation ago: they are refusing to attend initiation, telling their mother and grandmother that they will not attend the Bando.

According to the most recent household survey on the subject conducted by UNICEF in 2019, more than 90% of women over the age of 30 in Sierra Leone have undergone genital cutting, compared to only 61% in the 15-19 age group In. This exercise is done normally. Early in puberty, although there are areas of the country where it is performed on very young girls.

There is a huge social price to pay for refusing Bondo. Women who have not joined are not permitted to marry by custom, if not by law; to represent their communities in religious or cultural events; to attend a ceremony or funeral; or to serve in chief or parliament.

In most cases, initiation involves the excision of the clitoris and labia minora with a razor by a senior society member called a sowei., Those who have no medical training, but are considered to be spiritually powerful. The ceremony is performed only in women’s camps, which were once rural but now sometimes take place in towns, known as bondo bushes.

Laws against biting have had uneven enforcement and mixed results. Some countries, such as Egypt and Ethiopia, have seen a sharp drop in rates. But in other countries such as Senegal and Somalia, the decline has been negligible. Globally, girls at risk of being bitten continue to increase, as do countries that do not have laws or enforcement against biting, with large and rapidly growing youth populations.

While Sierra Leone has one of the world’s highest rates of biting, it is one of the few places where the practice is showing a steady decline, as more and more young women protest.

Every morning as she prepares for school, Isha Kamra and her grandmother Hawa argue over Bando. Hawa Kamra says the time has come to initiate her granddaughter. Isha Kamara, 20, who is in her final year of high school and wants to one day manage a bank, says she is not interested.

All her life, Isha Kamra, who has lived with her grandmother since being orphaned as a small child, has heard of her diksha plans. But when she read about Cutting in a magazine and heard lectures at school – “they told us that everything God has placed on our bodies is there and should remain” – she began to say that she was involved in society. Won’t happen.

Her grandmother warned that she would have no friends. Isha Kamra said that her friends were also planning to refuse initiation. Her grandmother warned that she would die alone and alone; Isha Kamra said that she hopes that many people would like to marry a bank manager.

Her grandmother tried to take bribes and promised new outfits. Kamra just raised an eyebrow at him.

The panic is highest in those days when the sound of traditional drums reverberates through the port loco for initiation. Kamra has offered to do the no-cutting Bondo, which is being promoted by some feminist groups, but her grandmother has said that it is useless.

Only one rebuttal has found any resonance: “That’s a lot of money,” said Hawa Kamra, referring to the cost of the ceremony. A family must pay the sowei who leads the sacrament, and organizes a feast or contributes to a community celebration. “I think we can spend it on her studies rather than calling people to come over for a feast that will be quickly eaten up,” she said.

While major international organizations such as UNICEF and UN Women are pushing cutting to end cutting, the views of many girls and young women are being influenced by indigenous activism. Radio shows, billboards and traveling drama groups have spread the message that cutting is dangerous, can cause severe labor difficulties for women, undermine their sexual health and violate human rights.

Bangura, who has been living with the family of her friend Aminata since leaving her family home, heard messages that it was dangerous to cut off her pastor in the church and a teacher at the school. Most of his friends were eager to join Bondo, she said, but, like her, some were hesitant, and they discussed it quietly amongst themselves. This is a significant change from previous years. Everything about society is meant to be secret, and breaking the taboo of discussing what happens there, including initiation rites, is said to bring the risk of a curse.

The problem that Bangura discovered is that social change does not happen rapidly or neatly.

Kai Samura, the owner of the house where Bangura lives, said he felt Bangura’s family was overreacting. “If they leave her because she refuses, it’s unjust,” she said.

Samura, 39, gave initiation at age 8, but told her daughters that they were free to choose, and that they should wait until they were 18. (Her husband is vehemently opposed to the practice, but says the matter is a woman’s jurisdiction.)

She admits that she and her husband are less rigid about Bondo because they live in a city and social controls are more lax, but she understands the village’s point of view: taking the initiative of the daughter’s social status and the girl’s own. important for the future.

“People don’t hate their kids,” said Chernor Bah, who runs Purposeful, a feminist advocacy organization in Freetown that works to end biting. “They are doing what they see as a rational, best interest decision for the lives of their children.”

A proposed amendment to the Rights of the Child Act, which is being reviewed by Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Gender and Child Affairs, would codify biting as a “harmful practice” and to perform the procedure on girls under the age of 18 would make it illegal. It is very less. Compared to the outright ban that many opponents want.

But the path to outlawing the process is not clear. Powerful individuals and institutions continue to support the practice – some openly, some discreetly – on the grounds that it is an important part of Sierra Leone’s culture and values. They often bolster the claim that the anti-bite movement is a Western import, seeks to subvert traditional values ​​and promotes parochialism.

Nasu Fofanah, a prominent Freetown entrepreneur and deputy chairman of the Progressive Unity Party, said that vote-seeking politicians often volunteer to pay for mass initiations in a community – even politicians who have publicly bitten has opposed. She said that several years ago, when she was advising a former president, Ernest Bai Koroma on the issue, she successfully persuaded most Sowei leaders to ban cutting children, which, she said, would be a big step. . But activists demanding a complete ban blocked the move, she said.

Fofanah had cut herself when she was 15 and recalls the pain and shock of the actual procedure (which she had no foresight). But she also said that it was overall a positive and affirming ritual.

“It was a beautiful experience for me,” she recalled of her grandmother leading dancers in celebration of her transformation into womanhood, being told that “no one will ever talk to you. Now you’ve become this woman.” Are.”

It was not hard to reconcile what had been done to her body, as she knew that her mother, her grandmother and her aunt had also gone through it. “So you endure, and you’re like, ‘Okay, it’s done, let’s go with it,'” she said.

Nevertheless, Fofanah, who was studying Bondo initiation for her master’s thesis at the University of Westminster in England, did not take her daughters for initiation and spoke to one of her nieces, telling her she “didn’t need it” because The family had enough resources to open other avenues for him. Still, he felt that a blanket ban was wrong.

“If we’re saying, when it comes to this practice, women can’t express themselves and say, ‘I’m 18 or I’m 21 or I’m 30, it’s my Culture is, I’m going’ – Where are the human rights to fulfill my rights as a woman?” he said. “Are you saying that I am not capable of making an informed decision to say that I want to go through this exercise?”

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