Rural women explore new solutions to counter customs and poverty driving FGM crisis

10 months ago
A whole village in Sierra Leone comes together to speak out against Female Genital Mutilation. Photo: UN Women/Cecil Nelson
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Cross-posted by UN Women

Globally, at least 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone some form of female genital mutilation or cutting (FGM). Sierra Leone has one of the highest rates of FGM in the world, with nine in every 10 women and girls cut, many as young as five years old. During the Ebola crisis of 2014, a moratorium was placed on FGM as part of the emergency health measures. But now three years on, the practice has returned, even though the ban is still in place. While gender inequality, myths and cultural beliefs are at the root of the practice, for many rural women, FGM is also a matter of livelihood.

“We do it not out of love, but out of custom, ignorance and poverty,” says Mabinty Kamara, from Port Loko district, in the northern part of Sierra Leone, who has performed FGMs for 30 years as a rite-of-passage ceremony for girls transitioning to adulthood. “But this practice is very bad. It causes suffering to our children, it is a painful procedure,” she admits. In this part of Sierra Leone, Kamara and other traditional leaders who perform these rituals are called “Soweis”.

Performing Bondo Bush—as FGM is called in the local language—is an important source of revenue for the Soweis. They receive gifts from the children’s parents for performing the ritual. They also enjoy an elevated stature in the community as custodians of their culture, and are afraid that they would lose the respect they get, if they stop performing the ritual: “We do it because we think we do not have a choice,” says Kamara.

As Sierra Leone prepares for elections in 2018, the issue of FGM is culturally sensitive and politically charged. To bring an end to the practice, along with local and national partners UN Women is working to shift public opinion and engaging traditional and religious leaders, as well as Parliamentarians, to understand the negative impacts of FGM.

For instance, UN Women convened 35 Sierra Leonean journalists and anti-FGM activists for a four-day training to improve reporting on the issue through national and local media. Recently, in October 2017, during the International Day for Rural Women celebrations, nine villages and their chiefs from the Yoni chiefdom in Tonkolili District, in the northern part of Sierra Leone, came together to have a dialogue about women’s experiences with FGM. They collectively denounced the practice—a significant win in an area where FGM is rampant, and even the police cannot effectively intervene if the traditional leaders support the practice.

“Ending Female Genital Mutilation is possible, but first we have to create an optimal means of survival for those who already consider initiation as employment,” said Fatmata Koroma, Sowei leader and community chief from the Tonkolili district, speaking at the event. She has stopped performing FGM ceremonies and is encouraging other Soweis to follow suit.

Fatmata B. Koroma. Photo: UN Women/Cecil Nelson

Fatmata B. Koroma is a Sowei leader and community chief from Tonkolili district, Sierra Leone, who used to perform FGM on girls as part of a rite-of-passage ceremony. But today, after learning about the harmful impacts including medical issues, and attending workshops organized by UN Women, she has changed her stance on FGM. 

“Since attending the UN Women workshop, I stopped performing FGM and have encouraged others in my chiefdom to follow suit. 

Ending Female Genital Mutilation is possible, but first we must create an optional means of survival for those who already consider initiation as employment. If we can create agricultural schemes for the women to start earning their livelihood through different means, we can eliminate FGM from our tradition.”

We need tractors, seeds, fertilizers to start farming. It is out of this Sowei business [of FGM] that we have been able to educate our children. Therefore, to end FGM, women need to be empowered economically.”

Also at the frontline of the fight against FGM are men like Reverend Osman Jessie Fornah, the National Superintendent of the Wesleyan Church of Sierra Leone, a UN Women HeForShe ambassador. Reverend Osman has been a pastor for 31 years and has seen the negative impact of FGM on his constituents. “It should be abolished in Sierra Leone,” he says. “Many times, I have witnessed girls bleeding to death because of FGM.”

Since 2009, Reverend Osman has been advocating against the practice, and results are evident. He succeeded in 50 church congregations across the country to take up the issue and develop teaching materials clarifying their religious position against FGM.

“We must encourage women to stand up, be strong and embrace change that will create better opportunities for them and their children,” says UN Women Country Representative Mary Okumu. “By rejecting the harmful traditional practice of FGM and child marriage, and by encouraging their girls to go to school, rural women of Sierra Leone can create a better future for the country.”

In addition to engaging traditional chiefs and parliamentarians through the HeForShe campaign, UN Women has supported rural women with cash transfer programmes and agricultural and poultry farming trainings funded by the Multi-Partnership Trust Fund.

“To end FGM, women need to be empowered economically,” concurs Fatmata Koroma, who is now focusing on agriculture as an alternative means of livelihood.

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