At age 18 I was told the time had come for me to go through Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). I didn’t want to. It was my mother and maternal grandmother’s idea: they’d also been responsible for the initiation of all of my female siblings. My mother cried and pleaded with me, begging me not to bring shame to my family. She told me it was not going to be hard because I was having it done in a hospital. I didn’t know it could be done in hospital, at the time this came as a shock.
My Dad, despite being a devout Muslim, was never in support of it. He always said he had never seen any part in the Quran that supports FGM. But according to our Sierra Leonean culture it is the role of the mother to ensure her female children are initiated into the “secret” Bondo society; a society solely responsible for FGM initiation.
Even though it is illegal in many countries, in Sierra Leone FGM is still carried out in hospitals for the middle and upper classes, usually by trained medical personnel. I was escorted by my siblings and some relatives to The Family Clinic on Wilkinson Road in Freetown. It is owned by a midwife based in the United States, where she does FGM for children of African parentage.
She comes to Freetown during the holiday period, where she performs the practice on children from the west (more affluent) side of Freetown. I was anaesthetised while the act was done. The midwife works with two assistant nurses. The wound is treated medically but the impact of FGM is the same as if performed in a non-clinical environment, where the majority of these procedures occur. I couldn’t walk normally for about two weeks. The sore was very painful. I found it excruciatingly painful to pass urine and it didn’t heal easily.
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 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. It is said more than 90% of Sierra Leonean women have undergone the procedure and despite international calls for criminalising it, many of my country’s politicians continue to secretly support it.
Another Sierra Leonean woman I know, Moijama Brima*, recently offered herself up to be initiated into the Bondo society at 24-years of age. Brima decided to undergo FGM because she wants to be a politician.
"I was laughed at. I was called names such as an unclean person, a non-initiate, a promiscuous woman,” she said. “Besides I realised that I will never become a successful female politician if I am not a member of the society. I must be a part of it to get the vote of the majority of traditional people.”
Even though politicians have expressed public commitment to stop the practice, they’ve given it their full support privately by paying huge amounts of donor money for the high costs associated with initiating young girls. They know it will pay dividends at the ballot box, especially in rural communities.
Brima’s initiation was paid for by the former Sierra Leone People’s Party government.
"Hundreds of us were paid for by the government through the member of parliament in that constituency. The activities were done in four districts of the country and this is done every year," said Brima.
In Sierra Leone, FGM is big business, with hundreds of girls initiated annually, especially during school holidays, normally between July and August, and around Christmas season.
However, reporting on it is not easy. I remember when a female journalist was sent telephone death threats for presenting a radio discussion programme about the harmful effects of the practice on the day of zero-tolerance to FGM in 2008. These threats were followed by mass protests from members of initiation associations across the country. Later, in 2009, several female journalists in eastern Sierra Leone were stripped naked and forced to walk through the streets because they had reported on the negative effects of FGM. While this was widely condemned by human rights activists, nothing significant was done to bring the perpetrators to book. Politicians greatly depend on members of the FGM society for success in elections.
I now live in the UK, where FGM is illegal. Despite that, many African families here seek traditional initiators to perform the act on their daughters when families find it difficult to send their children to Africa on the pretence of going for holiday.
The UK All Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health considers FGM a fundamental human rights problem with adverse health and social impacts.
Indeed, girls and women must be given sole power to take all decisions regarding any physical action done on their bodies. There is also need for adequate sensitisation so girls can have options rather than being frightened or coaxed into the procedure, as I was.
While efforts in the UK are directed towards preventing the act in the UK, and providing counselling and medical support for women affected by it there, I think the UK Department for International Development and other international donors should do more to help eradicate the practice in countries where it is still legal and acceptable, countries where governments are quite possibly spending donor funds to pay for girls to undergo FGM.
A woman like Brima should be able to run for political office without having to undergo FGM; a woman like me should be able to fulfil her familial obligations without going under the knife. It seems wiser for more international efforts to be put toward prevention and education in Africa rather than spending heavy sums on these same things in developed countries.