FGM Debate: Preserve Our Culture but Stop the Cutting

29 April 2014 at 22:29 | 14514 views

By Mariama Kandeh, London, UK.

The 2014 theme for the International day on zero tolerance on Female Genital Mutilation; ‘Preserve the best in culture and leave harm behind’ is probably the most fitting theme for the topic of FGM/C. This is because most advocates in favour of the practice particularly in Sierra Leone, argue that the idea is to preserve our honourable African culture that has been passed on from generation to generation.

Some believe the campaign against FGM/C is a form of western imperialism, the white man’s attempt to impose their way of life on us. It is befitting that in getting into the middle of the debate and granting a win-win situation to it that we preserve the traditional aspect of the whole notion and omit the parts that have proven harmful to women’s health and well being.

Membership of the Bondo society of Sierra Leone, the society responsible for the practice of FGM/C, brings pride and respect to women mainly from the provinces or with a heritage from the provinces. It is a rite de passage from girlhood to womanhood, it is intended to train young girls in the art of womanhood; teaching them how to cook, take care of the home, their children and their husbands. The whole idea seems absolutely worthy but for the the cutting of the clitoris and the labia.

Non-members of the Bondo society are considered unclean and loose, having an uncontrollable sexual desire. These myths have been used by FGM apologists to get young girls to join the society.

Some women and including a friend of mine have succumbed to these myths; she, at the age 24 willingly got herself initiated into the society and got cut in order to pursue a political career even though she despised the whole notion of cutting.

My friend is not alone, Sierra Leonean Anthropologist Fuambai Sia Ahmadu who grew up and got educated in the United States returned to Sierra Leone at the age of 21 to get initiated into the Bondo society. Ahmadu believes FGM/C poses no threats to women’s sex life. She claimed to had been sexually active before having her clitoris and labia cut. “I was surprised to find out that there was absolutely no difference in terms of my sexual experience, sexual feeling, ability to achieve orgasm,” she told SBS Insight, Australia.

Ahmadu who has done extensive research on the practice in West Africa also opined that most women do not consider themselves having been mutilated. "Most women do not experience it as mutilation and would never refer to themselves as mutilated."

While some critics believe Ahmadu’s comments cannot be unconnected to a future political ambition as she is currently an adviser to the government, her very strong statements could seriously hamper efforts to challenge the practice in Sierra Leone.

Apparently, Politics play a great part in the FGM/C debate in Sierra Leone. Politicians are unwilling to condemn the practice for fear of losing vital votes especially from the provinces where the majority of the electorate live or hail from. Female politician Mrs Zainab Bangura, as presidential candidate in the 2002 general elections allegedly lost over her anti FGM/C campaign.

As founder and head of the Campaign for Good Governance Organization, Bangura had been a strong campaigner against the practice. This cost her a great deal as during her political bid women from the Bondo society in the east of the country pelted her with stones and grossly insulted her for being what they called a "betrayer" of the institution of which she herself is a member.

In commemorating the international day on zero tolerance to FGM in 2008, Women in the Media Sierra Leone (WIMSAL), a female media organization, held a workshop and other activities to bring the topic of FGM/C into public debate. Issues were discussed from both sides of the debate including religious and non-religious views.

These activities coincided with a nation-wide march by women of the Bondo society mainly the Soweis (the initiators). The march was climaxed by a meeting with President Ernest Bai Koroma, demanding his support which he actually gave them.

That same day, Female journalist Florence Carter of Cotton Tree News, who had moderated a radio discussion on FGM/C on the day for the march, received death threats from unknown women who claimed to be Soweis.

Later in 2008, Manjia Balema Samba of the then UN radio was physically attacked in Kenema, Eastern Sierra Leone, by women of the Bondo society in the town after an interview she did live, explaining some of the horrific health effects of the practice on some girls in the district. She was beaten and stripped and was paraded around the town naked. The police intervened later but no arrests were made and despite calls by local and international media organizations for further investigations, Samba did not get the justice she desired.

The practice of FGM has had some long term debilitating effects on some women. While some had to live with the inability to give birth naturally, some had suffered severe virginal fistula, others had had to live with this reality for life time. Francess .A. Cole, a US based Sierra Leonean author in her autobiography ‘Distant Sunrise; the strength in her pain to forgive,’ explains the horrific scene she experienced during the initiation ceremony. She referred to the initiation bush as a ‘Camp death’.

‘Demons in the night. Oh what a night! The night they came at me in dozens with knives, scissors, razors and machetes. All hungry to drain my innocent ..........You let them take a part of me that would never be replaced. They left a hole in my heart that would never mend. My childhood snatched away from me.......my sexuality brutally restructured. And I was left in the dark to find my way...’Cole poetically described.

Cole, who bled severely and fainted once, saw her elder sister who was also being initiated with her pass out twice. Cole is using her work to educate other women who are struggling to heal from some of the traumatic experiences they endured as children.

Cole shares similar ordeal with many other Sierra Leonean women I have deliberated with on the issue of FGM/C. A lady once told me, the trauma left on her is probably responsible for her paranoia, constant depression and lack of commitment to friendship and relationship. ‘I don’t think my parents loved me; no woman who had carried her baby for nine months would want to see her child endure what I went through,’ she had said.

FGM/C is believed to be responsible for Sierra Leone’s high maternal mortality rate. Teenage pregnancy is high because after the Bondo society, girls are presumed ready for sex and marital life as a result a lot of them got engaged in sexual activities after the process, get pregnant and because of the fracture on their under-developed vagina, they are unable to deliver babies and this compounded by the lack of proper medical facilities, causes most of them to die in the process.

A Sierra Leonean woman living in London last year lost her teenage daughter to child birth. The daughter was living in Kenema in Sierra Leone. She blamed her daughter’s death to FGM/C and believed the situation could have been prevented if the daughter was living in the West where special care is given to women who had endured FGM/C and want to have babies. She explained that she was having nightmares about her experience with FGM/C and child marriage and had to attend months of counselling services to overcome her horrifying past.

The campaign to end the practice cannot be successful without the support of the men. Even though not all Sierra Leonean men are in support of the practice, a good number of men with heritage from the provinces still believe the practice must be upheld. Some men need education on the topic of FGM/C for them to accept that the cutting is harmful to women’s reproductive health.

Important actors like Ahmadu who do not believe in some of the effects of FGM/C must be adequately engaged in discussions and policy formulation to give it a full face.

Government commitment is also significant and thankfully, Minister of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs Moijueh Kaikai this month expressed his government’s commitment to pass legislation that would increase the age of consent to 18 years for girls who wish to be circumcised. While this does not mean an end to cutting it is crucial to ending the practice. Since at that age, educated girls would be able to make informed choices as to whether they want the practice done on them or not.

Upholding our culture is very crucial in enhancing a peaceful and moral society. Even in western countries, pregnant women are given classes on breast feeding and other arts of motherhood. Indeed colleges and universities in the West also offer courses on family life and different aspects of home management. This is to emphasize the importance of keeping a better family for a happier society.

The Bondo society as a traditional educational institution is very vital in training young girls on how to manage the home, becoming good wives and great mothers.

Other secret societies that teach boys important family and societal ethics must also be maintained if we are to groom responsible husbands and men of society. Such training programs are essential in ending pervasive rape and other forms of sexual and domestic abuses that are common today in Sierra Leone.

However, NGOs, CBOs, religious and traditional leaders must work together in expunging the aspects of these societies that inflict pain and leave long term debilitating impacts on initiates. The importance of safe pregnancy, safe child delivery and a healthy reproductive life for women and girls must be emphasized.

Furthermore, Sierra Leone needs counselling services for women who have gone through such horrendous experiences. They are living with the experience and is affecting their everyday life. Subsequent effects include mood swings, drug and substance abuse, bad parenting/abusive parents, paranoia and the lack of self love. This is destroying families, homes, communities and subsequently the society.

While I do agree with the idea of us upholding our unique traditions I also believe it is very crucial for us to eschew practices that are deemed detrimental to us and especially to women and children’s health.