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Controversy over Female Circumcision in Sierra Leone
The smouldering controversy over the illegality of female circumcision in Sierra Leone was re-kindled at Women Deliver conference in Vancouver, Canada, June 3-6 2019.
There, Sierra Leone’s First Lady, Fatima Maada Bio, was presented with two models of vulvas – one with and one without external genitalia. Sierra Leonean born Sarian Kamara, now a British anti-FGM activist said “I want to present myself as evidence to you of what FGM can do to a woman. This is what my vagina should look like, and this is what it looks like now.”
The First Lady had been speaking about “Keeping Girls in School and Learning … Longer”. But she had angered activists earlier this year saying that as a circumcised woman she would not speak out against female circumcision/FGM – a campaign she did not believe in – and that she needed to see evidence of the harm it caused.
She invited Kamara to meet with her when next in Sierra Leone where the activist runs workshops on ending FGM.
First Lady’s interview
Afterwards, the First lady was interviewed on BBC Sounds (41 mins in). Listeners were reminded that according to the United Nations, 90 per cent of girls in Sierra Leone are circumcised.
The First Lady confirmed that she is a circumcised woman. Because she has only ever known that, she doesn’t know what it feels like not being circumcised. She has not suffered complications as a result of her circumcision.
When asked whether FGM is wrong or bad she replied ‘You have to believe it from your gut’. She has heard that women are affected and may have complications but she’s not seen proof or stats to back this up. Although her daughters are uncircumcised, she is not anti-circumcision – she just doesn’t want her daughters to suffer.
She said the practice in Sierra Leone is not the same as elsewhere and that the FGM horrific stories are irrelevant to it. She thinks that anti-FGM campaigners should be more honest in this regard.
She agreed it would be best to defer circumcision until the age of consent (18 years) and thinks the teenagers will be unlikely to choose it then. But as she’s not part of the Government she doesn’t have power to influence the law now.
Vickie Remoe, a writer with an interest in gender equality, was invited to comment following the First Lady’s interview. She reminded listeners that in Bondo culture, girls are circumcised as children.
Bondo, she explained, is a powerful, secret female society with deep cultural traditional values. Women are encouraged to endure and not talk about pain. She considered the women speaking out to be brave and courageous because they are defying Bondo norms.
She believes that politicians deliberately missed an opportunity to outlaw female circumcision when the Child Rights Act 2007 was passed. That was an election year. Had they left references to FGM, it would’ve cost them votes. She also said that the First Lady then had paid for 1,000 girls to be cut – to enhance her husband election chances.
While she believes the First Lady could help, she thought citizen participation to be more important in order to achieve sustainable results. The Government, activists and the media should help educate families. And customs could be kept without the cutting.
Fathers too could help break the cycle and men should say they’ll marry uncut girls.
She hopes the President will recognise female circumcision as a form of gender based violence and sexual abuse by 2023.
Fuambai Sia Ahmadu, a medical anthropologist, responded to Vickie Remoe. Because of the rarity and importance of this engagement, an almost full version is transcribed below. Her response can be heard here.
“My name is Fuambai Sia Ahmadu. I am a Sierra Leonean American anthropologist and Founder of SiA Inc. We do a variety of things at SiA Inc but our main focus is empowering circumcised women and girls in Sub-Sahara Africa to stand up for our rights to equality, dignity and self-determination. These are big human rights concepts that I will cover in detail in future video blogs, videos and interviews.
Today I am speaking in my capacity as the official global spokeswoman or PRO for the National Sowie Council of Sierra Leone, which is made up of the female traditional heads and circumcision practitioners of Bondo and Sande women’s secret sodalities or societies. My organisation was responsible for bringing together over 3,000 Sowies and Bondo women leaders last year in the National Stadium in Freetown, in a historic occasion to celebrate our traditions and establish a blueprint for moving forward. To this end, I want to speak specifically in reference to a BBC Interview yesterday that featured the First Lady of Sierra Leone, Madame Fatima Maada Bio and social media personality, Vickie Remoe.
She summarised the broadcast interview with the First Lady, then responded directly to Vickie Remoe.
Miss Remoe was asked to respond to the First Lady’s comments. And this is where I am going to come in. Miss Remoe was correct about certain points she made but I want to clarify those areas where, as a non-Bondo/Sande member who is not an expert on these traditions, she made misleading statements about female circumcision, women’s knowledge and the gender ideology of Bondo and Sande societies.
First, Miss Remoe is correct for recognising that Bondo and Sande societies are the epitome of feminine power. She also noted that Bondo and Sande are sacred and exclusive spaces for women. More accurately, Bondo represents the embodiment of women’s control over male sexual pleasure and reproductive power from ancestral times to the present. Together with the male counterpart, Poro society, these two traditional institutions are responsible for the construction of gender, the creation of female and male, of wife and husband, and separation of mother and son, which forms the basis of our gendered kinship systems or social structures in Sierra Leone. My website contains a wealth of literature on the complementarity and interdependence of female and male initiation within Bondo and Poro in Sierra Leone.
Now to speak to some of the one-sided issues Miss Remoe referred to. Secrecy. Yes, initiation into Bondo and Sande involve secrecy and a code of honour for women. This is also the case for male initiation into Poro. In fact, no one ever dares to speak openly or publicly about Poro society and what goes on in the Poro bush. Only African women’s spaces and bodies have been breached by western financed FGM campaigns.
Miss Remoe refers to the practice of female circumcision as generally performed on children. In Sierra Leone, several major ethnic groups only initiated girls in the past at older adolescence. This was the case because initiation involves the transformation of girls into wives (just as male initiation transforms boys into husbands), and therefore they had to be physically ready for marriage, which of course means engaging in sexual relations and bearing children.
The circumcision of girls at very young ages became more common as a result of Islamisation, colonisation and the requirements of modern schooling and now, because of aggressive anti-FGM campaigns. Like the First Lady has said, campaigners should focus on working with women leaders and traditional authorities to increase the age of female initiation nationally and any female circumcision procedure that involves more than the removal of clitoral foreskin, which is comparable with removal of penis foreskin and male circumcision.
Miss Remoe then makes a reference to the 2007 Child Rights Act and states that legislators refused to include a provision banning under 18 female circumcision because it was an election year. She is correct about this and I will come to back to this in a moment.
For now, I want to address Miss Remoe’s casual reference to “harmful” consequences of female circumcision. As the First Lady stated, she herself has not experienced any long term harm from her procedure. She has heard of other women who said they were harmed but she has not seen any medical evidence to support a move on her part to champion FGM campaigns. And this is the problem with anti-FGM campaigns. For fifty plus years there has been a lot of sensationalised media attention, pictures of dirty knives and razor blades, babies or grown women being held down and a lot of outlandish horror stories recounted by asylum seekers in Western countries.
However, all the reliable scientific evidence that we are aware of continues to confirm that there is no significant difference in the experiences of circumcised and uncircumcised women living in the same environment with the same access or lack of access to adequate health care when it comes to sexual and reproductive health outcomes.
As I have pointed out on several occasions in response to Miss Remoe’s call to protect girls from genital cutting of “healthy” organs, the same criticism can be and is levelled against male circumcision. Miss Remoe had no issue blogging arrogantly about her parental prerogative to remove so-called healthy tissue from her newborn son when he was clearly unable to give informed consent. In that blog, Miss Remoe confuses parental consent for informed consent. The fact is that she, Vickie Remove, chose to remove what male circumcision opponents believe is healthy, erogenous flesh and tissue from her infant son simply because of her beliefs about the long term benefits versus the short-term risks.
Well, millions of Sierra Leonean women make the same decisions about their daughters in Sierra Leone. Miss Remoe may have had the luxury of having her son cut in a hospital in the United States under local anesthesia but the vast majority of boys are cut in the bush in Sierra Leone with no anesthesia and with the same traditional methods, knives and razors used in female circumcision.
Miss Remoe also patronisingly suggested that most women in Sierra Leone have never seen uncut, normal, healthy female genitalia. How many uncircumcised women have seen normal, healthy circumcised female genitalia? Miss Remoe assumed that the women of Sierra Leone do not understand the use and function of the organ that is removed. Well, to Miss Remoe and all others who make this assumption, Bondo and Sande women know exactly what is removed. We celebrate what is removed, and are deliberate about the benefits of this excision.
Bondo women are very clear about the health, hygiene and aesthetic advantages of being circumcised:
1. Prevention of clitoral and labia hypertrophy or uncomfortable and unsightly overgrowth of the visible external foreskin and glans and inner labia. These problems are the main reason given for the explosion of female genital cosmetic procedures among uncircumcised, mainly white women in Western countries. These procedures involve labia and clitoral reductions as well as vaginal tightening.
2. Prevention of painful clitoral adhesions caused by poor hygiene and build-up of smegma – this is the cheese-like substance that develops between the clitoral foreskin and glans. The prevention of smegma is one of the main reasons given by women like Miss Remoe and men to justify male circumcision.
3. Prevention of odorous bacteria and importantly, viral infections such as HPV that can grow in the moist environment of the clitoral foreskin and glans and cause e.g. throat cancer in partners who engage in oral sex. Again, another justification for male circumcision is to reduce the transmission of HPV, which can cause cervical cancer in women as well as the spread of the deadly HIV virus.
4. Aesthetics – most circumcised women and our partners prefer the smoother, symmetrical and cleaner appearance of a circumcised vulva in the same way that most circumcised men and their partners prefer the smoother and cleaner appearance of the circumcised penis.
Circumcision – male and female – in Sierra Leone is performed for cultural and religious reasons and not specifically to achieve the above benefits. But the perceived health and aesthetic advantages are certainly real and impactful for affected men and women.
So, back to the political importance of female circumcision and why it is that legislators will never enact a law that goes against the will of the majority of women in Sierra Leone.
Female and male circumcision are central to the identities of individuals and to the social structures of almost all ethnic groups in Sierra Leone. Our traditional authorities who are represented in parliament would never vote against their ancestral traditions that continue to give cultural meaning as well as real health, hygiene and aesthetic benefits to women. Our male and female paramount chiefs and heads of male and female societies are the custodians of these traditions and they will ensure that they are preserved. We welcome any challenge by anti-FGM activists or Ms Remoe herself to the democratic rights of women in our 2023 national elections.
We agree that the narrative must change in Sierra Leone, in the rest of Africa and throughout the world. The western feminist narrative of FGM in our view is racist and sexist and represents an attempt by mainly white western women and feminists to colonise the bodies and minds of circumcised women. Many of these western women are fighting to defend Roe vs. Wade and their right to choose what to do with their own bodies, even killing their unborn children, yet they want to deny African and Muslim women the same right to choose what to do with our own bodies and to circumcise our daughters in our own likeness.
We have our own narratives, our own gender constructs, our cultures, traditions and religious practices. The women of Sierra Leone have every right to equality, dignity and self-determination that is accorded to men and women like Ms R who practice male circumcision and to western women who are now increasingly adopting and modernising our female circumcision practices in female genital cosmetic surgery procedures.
For more information on how interested individuals can work with the Sowie Council in Sierra Leone, Sierra Leone Women are Free to Choose or SiA Inc. in our efforts to medicalise and improve traditional female circumcision as well as to advance adult literacy among current practitioners and formal medical and research training to the young Sowies of the future, do contact us.”
I hope that this useful discussion continues and am confident that it will.
About the Author - Bríd Hehir
Bríd is a retired health professional. She started her career as a (volunteer) nurse and midwife in Africa, in Ethiopia and Botswana, 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.
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