Sierra Leone: FGM used as a weapon of political campaign

Inter Press Service
‘'It is not an easy job ... At crucial moments I get chased out of places where the practice is much more prevalent,'' complains Ann Marie Caulker, who is championing the campaign to end the age-old tradition of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
‘'Here in the capital (Freetown), the practice is not widespread because of the cosmopolitan nature of the city. But in the predominantly conservative countryside, it is more or less a taboo to venture discussing FGM in public; a real tough challenge,'' she says.
Caulker's strategy is simple. Through her Katanya Women's Development Association (KADWA), she has recruited hundreds of young girls, aged between 12 and 18, the prime target for FGM, and placed them in skills training centres. The girls learn tailoring, dyeing, weaving, soap making and embroidery.

This is a cover to promote her cause, because of the hostility faced by anyone who dares speak out openly against FGM. In between training sessions, she organises lectures and discussions about the harmful effects of FGM and admonishes youngsters to resist attempts at getting them initiated into the 'Bondo Society', the local name for FGM.

There is as yet no law on FGM in Sierra Leone. In fact, there is no statute on children's rights. However, the fact that children played a major role in the decade-long civil war that ended three years ago, mainly as conscripted combatants, has jolted the authorities into action.

The children are traumatised, many forced into marriages by rebel fighters or gang-raped and enslaved. The ministry of gender, social welfare and children's affairs has drafted a bill aimed at protecting children's welfare.

Francis Murray Lahai, a child protection officer at the ministry, says the bill was drafted with the help of experts hired by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and has much to offer children in post-conflict Sierra Leone.

‘'In the bill there is an aspect dealing with harmful traditional practices like FGM, tattoos and any bodily inscription not in the interest of the child,'' Lahai says. ‘'These will be proscribed and measures taken against people who may want to break the law.''

‘'The main components of the bill are survival, development and protection of the child as well as ensuring the child's participation in all that is in his/her interest,'' he says.

The bill is currently before the country's parliament and legislators are expected to commence debate on its provisions before it is passed into law.

But there is fierce opposition to the bill. ‘'Female Genital Mutilation is an integral part of our culture. It shouldn't be banned because it helps prepare our young girls for marriage and it curbs promiscuity,'' rants 24-year-old Marie Bangura who had gone through the initiation ceremony.

She holds that the ‘Bondo Society' and its ceremonial rites ‘'inculcates a sense of belonging in young girls, teaches them to keep secrets and be disciplined.''

Opponents, on the other hand, disagree, pointing to medical complications like infertility, persistent bleeding and deaths in some cases as consequences of such a practice. ‘'The initiators often use unsterilised blades to incise the genital organs and there is hardly any proper post-operation medication. I think this is the major problem,'' says Dominic Sesay, a child rights activist.

‘'Even the spurious argument that it decreases the girl's urge for sex, hence curbing promiscuity is a falsehood. We have seen more promiscuous women among victims of FGM than those who have not gone through the exercise. I think it's all brainwashing,'' he argues.

One major problem facing anti-FGM campaigners is the massive illiteracy standing at about 75 percent especially in the interior of the country where UNICEF estimates 90 percent of the women have been circumcised. There, it is a display of affluence and power. Family heads save for a whole year proceeds from the farming activities to spend lavishly on ‘Bondo' ceremonies.

‘'Bondo Society is what hold us together as a community and keeps our traditional heritage. We cannot sit idly by and allow outsiders to destroy it. We will fight it out,'' 56-year-old Ya Ndigba Thulla, an initiator in Makeni, the northern regional capital, told IPS in an interview.

On the campaigning side, for advocates against the practice, there is now a plus in the area of public sensitisation. A new movie on FGM, the first to be shot in Sierra Leone, has been screened. Titled ‘Sebatu's Initiation', the movie has been produced and directed by 32-year-old filmmaker Brima Sheriff.

The film pitches the two opposing sides to FGM and leaves the public to judge. Its major advantage though is that it vividly illustrates the harmful effects of FGM.

Sharing his thoughts on making the film with IPS, Sheriff says, ‘'It has not been easy. Even when we were on location shooting we had problems with locals in the village who are traditionalists. I had to keep confounding them about the theme so they were confused.''

Sheriff says screening the movie was also problematic. ‘'We were sabotaged and almost prevented from showing it to the public,'' he says.

Sheriff's contention may just well be true. The ‘Bondo Society' and its practice of FGM is often used as a weapon of political campaign. Politicians from all sides win votes from women by extolling the virtues of the ‘Bondo Society'.

In the 2002 presidential elections, an influential female candidate, also a gender activist Zainab Bangura allegedly lost woefully at the polls because she was accused of campaigning against FGM.

So there is still a problem. Would the authorities have the political will to proscribe FGM and other harmful traditional practices, even as called for in the children's bill?

Mohamed Sankoh, a rights activist, is not convinced. ‘'The elections are just two years away. So I don't see our political leaders taking on this sensitive issue,'' he says.

In the meantime, though, the campaign continues. It would probably gather momentum if and when legislators pass the children's bill into law and make it enforceable. (END/2005)

by Lansana Fofana for IPS