Freetown — The campaign to have female genital mutilation (FGM) outlawed in Sierra Leone seems to have taken a nose-dive with Bondo initiators - known locally as 'Soweis' - apparently continuing to have the upper hand in this struggle to eliminate a practice considered by many as having outlived its relevance. Even rights groups that had vigorously campaigned for the abolition of the practice seem to have conceded defeat to the extent that the campaign language has now been toned-down so as not to offend tradition.
The approach by the authorities calling for young girls below the age of 18 not to be initiated into the Bondo society instead of decreeing a ban on the practice portends that government is disinclined to outlaw FGM, which by all indication is a tacit endorsement of the practice. This development means the rights of those young girls who loathe the practice and therefore wouldn't want to be part of an age-old tradition that means nothing to them are not protected and therefore left at the mercy of the 'dreaded' Soweis.
The 2012 Universal Periodic Review by the UN Human Rights Council of the state of human rights in Sierra Leone, among other things, calls for the total elimination of female genital mutilation through government policies and consultations with communities and religious leaders. In spite of this call, FGM practice continues to thrive in the country.
FGM is practiced all over Sierra Leone; even the Western Area that had seen a flurry of campaigns calling for its banning is now playing host to the practice. But the Bondo is predominantly practiced in the provincial areas, especially in the South where it was introduced in the 1800s by the powerful Mende ruler Madam Yoko or Mammy Yoko. She was the ruler of the vast Kpa Mende Confederacy, a feat she achieved through her shrewd marriage choices and the power afforded her from the secret Bondo (Sande) society.
With the Bondo, Yoko was able to wield significant power not only amongst women, but Mende society as a whole. As a leader in this secret women's society, she made political alliances and took younger initiates as "wards" - later marrying them into other lineages. This explains why female genital mutilation has strong roots in the Southern Province, especially among the Mendes - a people that form the bulk of the population in that region.
Young girls in that part of the country are being forced into becoming members of the Bondo society, as parents consider the rite as a transition from childhood to womanhood. Those girls who say no to initiation often stand the risk of being shunned by the peers, or ostracised by their parents and the society. This compels most girls to accept the practice, notwithstanding the health complications that follow it afterward.
Sierra Leone was ably represented at the Dakar conference but despite the commitment made by other African MPs attending the meeting, the country's parliamentarians seem less interested in pushing for a ban on the practice, despite the threat it continues to pose on the well-being of young aspiring Sierra Leonean girls.
The sad part of it all is that the Government of Sierra Leone has failed - both legally and otherwise - in providing protection for girls who loathe the practice and may not wish to undergo the initiation rites. Some bitter lessons of the past should spur our authorities into taking action to ensure the future of our girls is protected.
Most Sierra Leoneans could still recall the ugly incident that took place a little over a month ago at a village close to Mattru Jong in the Bonthe district, Southern Sierra Leone where a 12-year-old girl was secretly taken from her parents by one of her aunts and given to 'Soweis' (FGM initiators) to be initiated into the Bondo secret society.
The girl suffered excessive bleeding after the initiation ceremony; and despite all kinds of 'native' medication in the Bondo bush, she failed to recover and eventually died few days later. After days of searching for the 'missing girl' by her parents, a relative later informed the parents that the girl was last seen in the company of her aunt; a revelation that led them to the Bondo bush, where they were told of their daughter's demise.
This development did not go down well with the family and local authorities in the village. Some family members and youth decided to go on a revenge mission and by the time they could storm the Bondo bush, the 'Soweis' and their accomplices had already fled. This led to serious tension in the village and it took the intervention of police personnel from the southern headquarter town of Bo to put the situation under control; but before that time, the Bondo bush had already been set on fire.
So aside the health hazard FGM poses to young girls, the practice is also a security issue as the situation in Bonthe clearly demonstrated.
It could also be recalled that Concord Times, on February 28, 2011, published a story about a dedicated health care worker in the Moyamba district, southern Sierra Leone, who had come under severe threats from a group of Bondo secret society women due to her advocacy against the FGM practice. Mama Fanny has been relentless in advocating and encouraging women to avoid initiating their little girls into the Bondo society, citing long-term health complication and the general well-being of women. Such advocacy had angered especially the initiators (Soweis), thus the repeated threats to harm her if she continued with her campaign.
In January this year, a group of Bondo women in Shenge village in the Moyamba district, southern Sierra Leone, who still believe and rely on this practice for their survival, had waged a persecution war against Mama Fanny.
"They are threatening her with death, harassment and exile from the village," a family friend in Shenge who preferred anonymity, had told Concord Times. He said several reports had been made to the police but that action was yet to be taken "due to political interference or pressure". Some politicians, he alleged, are providing funding and support for initiation into the Bondo society as a political move to win votes.
Several rights groups across the country have been advocating for an end to FGM practice but government is too shy to take a position on the issue for fear of losing political sympathy from Sierra Leonean women who still believe in the practice.
According to the United Nations Population Fund, FGM is practiced in about 28 African countries, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Tanzania. It has only been outlawed in 15 of these countries and the World Health Organization estimates that as many as 130 million girls and women have undergone the procedure. Although there are different types of FGM, in Sierra Leone it mostly means the removal of the clitoris and the labia minora.
As dreadful as it is, every level of the Sierra Leonean society seems to have accepted FGM as a reality that we must live with. And it has become highly politicised, making it much more difficult for human rights activists to openly criticize it. It is said that more than 90% of Sierra Leonean women have undergone the procedure and despite international calls for criminalising it, many of our country's politicians continue to secretly support it.
Contemporary world despises such an act which is threatening the well-being of our little girls. When are we going to abolish such an act as a state? It is but necessary that we give a chance to our girls to enjoy their human rights, instead of making them live under the constant threat of FGM.