Articles on Shifting Sands
Should African women be free to choose genital cutting?
The recent death of Fatmata Turay, a 19 year old Sierra Leonean woman was initially attributed to the circumcision she underwent during her initiation into Bondo society. Because of the negative publicity that ‘FGM’ attracts, it rapidly became a high-profile issue. But it is now known that her death was due to bilateral lobar pneumonia. Three members of this secret society of women and a nurse who were arrested have since been released without charge.
As a consequence, a coalition of local activists, supported by Project ACEi and Equality Now, launched a campaign, demanding that Sierra Leone ‘bans this human rights violation as a matter of urgency.’ Sierra Leone is one of the few countries in Africa, alongside Guinea and Liberia that doesn’t have a specific law against FGM.
Turay’s death has not been in vain however because it has provided an opportunity to begin a much needed public discussions as to why FGM is practised and still actively supported by most women in Sierra Leone, including Dr Sylvia Blyden, minister of social welfare, gender and children’s affairs. This is despite the widespread condemnation directed against the practice and its supporters.
It has also enabled Sierra Leonean women – opponents and advocates, to engage in discussion about the practice and to begin to explain why they continue to support it, or not. And for some to challenge the perceived one-dimensional nature of discussions in regard to it.
Naasu Fofaneh is one of those women. She is a former gender advisor to the President of Sierra Leone. This week she participated in a West Africa radio discussion about whether or not FGM should be outlawed there. She made the point that anywhere female circumcision is practised, so is male.
Young women in Sierra Leone are prepared for adult life, marriage and motherhood through the women-only secret society, Bondo. Its women leaders, Soweis, are powerful and influential. This makes politicians wary of confronting them. However, the society has now agreed not to circumcise young women under 18 years and to allow them to decide for themselves in regard to it when they reach the age of consent.
Although Fofaneh is proudly circumcised, her daughter has chosen not to be. But in areas of the country where women are expected to become community leaders, she believes it inconceivable that they could become leaders without being initiated, including being circumcised.
She was vociferous in her discussion about terminology and reminded listeners of the damage that language could inflict, suggesting it was divisive with potential to cause psychological damage.
She disagreed with calling what women and young girls undergo ‘mutilation’, citing instead many survivors of the 10year civil war as mutilated, not the initiates who undergo circumcision as part of a rite of passage.
She pointed out that the type practiced in Sierra Leone is much less severe than what is alleged to be practiced elsewhere and suggested that infibulation is deliberately but falsely being cited by anti-FGM campaigners. She outlined some of the damage that female circumcision is reported to cause i.e. the effect on women’s sexual function and pleasure as well as on their psychological wellbeing, despite there not being independent evidence to support those contentions.
She also identified the double standard she perceived operating in regard to female genital surgeries. Western women can choose to have e.g. clitoral hood reduction and labiaplasty in London’s Harley Street. This is similar to what Sierra Leonean women undergo but is deemed to be ‘mutilation’. Surely it should be up to them to choose what surgery they have?
It was common for anti-FGM campaigners to celebrate the suspension of the practice during the Ebola crisis there. But she credited that decision to the work done with Paramount Chiefs who instructed people to temporarily suspend both male and female initiation.
She attributed the political power that women in Bondo society hold and which politicians fear challenging, to explain why FGM had not been made illegal in Sierra Leone. This is unlike in countries like Nigeria and Gambia where similar societies do not exist.
Opponents of female circumcision, including a woman called Aminatu, were also interviewed for the same programme. Although valuing the social and cultural aspects of Bondo society, she disagreed with the circumcision component of initiation.
She had been initiated and circumcised at 16 years and described the feeling of betrayal and pain that she endured. She did not agree that young women can freely choose not to be circumcised now because of the continued perceived need to protect family honour and prevent the social isolation that would almost certainly ensue.
Others cited the health related problems that circumcision can cause.
Another suggested that girls unwilling to be circumcised should be given school scholarships to enable them to leave home.
Let’s hope that this useful public discussion will continue but not be confined to Africa and that activists and opponents will participate.
The radio interview starts at 22mins in.
About the Author - Bríd Hehir
Bríd is a retired health professional. She started her career as a nurse and midwife in Africa where she worked for almost four years. She encountered FGM/C in Ethiopia. She then moved to London where she worked in the National Health Service as a midwife, community nurse, health visitor, reproductive and sexual health nurse and manager over a period of 30 years. She did not encounter FGM/C during that time despite working with immigrant communities who are reported to practice it still. She is puzzled by the current reported prevalence of the practice, the official response and associated activism. And is worried that they might cause more harm than good.