By Ragan M. Conteh
According to the 2017 Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS), Sierra Leone is among the countries in Africa with the highest prevalence of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
The DHS shows that in the Southern province of Sierra Leone, approximately 83% of all women and girls have undergone FGM, while in the Northern Province the prevalence is 93%, Eastern Province 91% and Western Area 77%, respectively.
Madam Rugiatu Neneh Koroma, the founder and Executive Director of the Amazonian Initiative Movement (AIM) says that the FGM aspect of “bondo” society should be removed based on health, social and economic risks associated to it. For this reason, her organization has initiated the new method of “bondo” without cutting as a pilot phase in the Port Loko district.
In this new method of bondo practice, Madam Koroma explains, initiates are no longer subjected to FGM or
“cutting”. Rather, the ceremonies focus on the other traditional aspects of bondo, including celebrating the new initiates and upholding wholesomely the aspects of bondo society, including dancing, teaching women and girls to respect elders, how to take care of their husbands, children and members of the family among others.
“Bondo society is a place where women can learn and imbibe the culture of good leadership in their communities,” says Madam Koroma, who explains that this is still the case with the new model – the only difference is that it no longer needs to involve shedding any blood.
One of the reasons Madam Koroma says FGM has persisted so long is that many bondo initiators, called “sowies”, rely on income from parents, as payment to complete initiation ceremonies. However, she says that, with this new model of “bondo without cutting”, sowies can still earn their livelihood for initiating new members of the society, without having to harm them through FGM.
“Another reason we want to push for the removal of cutting in bondo society,” she explains, “is that in many cases, underage girls do go into these bondo shrines without prior knowledge of [what will happen to them there] – which is an act of deceit.”
Besides being a violation of human and child rights to perform such harmful practices on girls without their informed consent, Madam Koroma says that FGM also carries no health benefit. In fact, women and girls who have experienced FGM face increased risks during and immediately after childbirth, including an increased need for caesarean sections and prolonged hospital stays.
“Women do not want a culture that will kill,” she says.
“Women have died at the hospital as a result of health implications from FGM. They want the culture that will help uplift their dignity.” This, she believes, is where “bondo without cutting” can help, by maintaining traditions and celebrating girls’ rites of passage, but without causing bodily harm.
In the area of providing alternative means of livelihood for the initiators or “sowies”, Madam Koroma stated that her organization has established a skills training centre where these women are being trained in income-generating arts including tailoring, soap making, and gara tie dying.
According to her, due to this initiative, over 40 long-standing sowies have now surrendered their instruments, promising that they will never go back to their usual practices.
Speaking from a United Nations perspective, the UN Women Country Representative, Dr. Mary Okumu, said that the bondo without cutting initiative brought by AIM is a laudable venture that needs to be emulated across the country.
Dr. Okumu called on other initiators in other districts to copy this new model, as it causes no health harm to either the women or the communities.
The Girl Child Network is a national non-governmental organization working to promote child rights in Sierra Leone. Its Director, Madam Anita Koroma, said that women and girls of this country have suffered due to the terrible practice of FGM, and many of them have lost their lives, dignity, or been permanently disabled as a result. For these reasons, she says her organization will continue to support AIM to ensure that this heinous practice is eliminated.
“Most of those engaged into this harmful practice, according to our findings,” Madam Anita explains, “are the less privileged and vulnerable women in remote communities in Sierra Leone.” For these reasons, she says, widespread awareness raising and support are needed in order to educate them about the dangers of FGM.
According to Madam Anita, government has already passed a moratorium that girls below age 18 should not be initiated into FGM, but enforcement has been a challenge.
For one sowie, known as Sampa Soko, it was understanding the negative impacts that FGM can have which led her to join the “bondo without cutting” initiative. Sadly, she explains that she was one of those who initiated girls at Mile 91 last year, after which a 10 year old girl eventually lost her life, due to excessive bleeding after undergoing FGM.
“All what I have learned from AIM-SL, I see it with my naked eyes and I experience it long ago,” Sampa Soko says. “I am one among those that have disarmed and I will never go back into this cutting practice.”
A new initiate of bondo without cutting, Naimeh Ishmael, disclosed that parents are often responsible for influencing their young girls to initiate into the FGM practice.
However, she said with the alternative rite of passage offered thanks to “bondo without cutting”, their dignity has been restored. Additionally, she says that through this new process, the new initiates learned a lot during the recent two-week-long initiation period at Mathaska Village, interacting with UN Women representatives, women CSOs, women lawyers and many women of substance – something which has never happened in the history of bondo.
“I give thanks on behalf of my [fellow initiates],” says Naimeh Ishmael, “to Madam Neneh Koroma for making it possible to introduce a bondo practice that sees women have their respect and also benefits from womanhood trainings into the bondo bush. I am proud.”
The Section Chief of Maka Section in Port Loko District, Pa Alimamy Conteh says that bondo society without cutting is not a new phenomenon that AIM brings to Sierra Leone. Instead, he says it is just a reformation of the old traditions – omitting the harmful practice of FGM.
Pa Conteh says, of late bondo society has become a business entity in the country – so he is grateful that AIM-SL is working to wipe out the cutting, so as to save women and girls in the country.
He revealed that the recent bondo without cutting at Maka Section at Mathaska village is crystal clear and is geared towards enhancing the development of women and girls through responsible culture.
“I denied at first when AIM-SL Director told me about the first bondo without cutting,” he admits, “and I even asked how it can be possible to initiate women without cutting. But at last I saw the colorful events went on successfully in my section.”
The Paramount Chief of Teneh Chiefdom in the Tonkolili District, Bai Kafarie II, says he has also been convinced about the value of bondo without cutting – and has announced a ban on the practice of FGM in his chiefdom, in other to give chance to women and girls to grow with dignity and become responsible women in his jurisdiction.
“I cannot wait for government to ban this heinous practice [nation-wide],” says the chief. “I have the power as chief to do so [in my area] because the practice is demeaning for women, a lot of girls and women have died as a result of these traditions. We know that and everybody knows, so I have ordered all my sections and town chiefs to inform sowies about this development and no one will go against my authority.”
By Ragan M. Conteh