On Saturday 17th May, a nine year old Sierra Leonean girl died from female genital mutilation (FGM) related complications. This case is unusual but only in that it was made public and reported. Despite being widespread in Sierra Leone FGM is shrouded in secrecy and rarely openly discussed.
28 Too Many’s new report “Country Profile: FGM in Sierra Leone” shines a light on this secretive practice and shows that there has been a slight fall in the prevalence rate of FGM in Sierra Leone from 2008 to 2013 but the practice still affects approximately 89.6% of women (DHS, 2013). The prevalence rate is as high as 94.3% in rural areas, with the Northern Province having the highest rates.
FGM is a deeply engrained cultural practice in Sierra Leone and is closely linked to girls’ initiation into secret women’s societies (Bondo). 90% of women are members of Bondo and membership of these societies marks a girl’s transition to womanhood and enables her to take an active role in her community. There is no law in Sierra Leone that specifically prohibits FGM and there are many challenges to the enforcement of national children’s rights laws or other legal instruments, especially the secrecy which often surrounds FGM and the political power of Bondo societies.
Despite these challenges there are some indicators of change and hope for the future. Since the end of the civil war there has been a growing discourse on women’s rights, health and education. There are a growing number of activists and NGOs working to end FGM and a range of programmes. These include alternative rites of passage initiatives which preserve the cultural significance of Bondo but without the harm of FGM such as that run by the Masanga Education Association.
“FGM continues to affect the lives of most girls and women in Sierra Leone. There are also an estimated 100,000 Sierra Leoneans living in the UK, many in London and with a prevalence rate of almost 90% in their country of origin many of the girls are at risk of being cut. Only last month a woman returning to the UK from Sierra Leone was arrested at Heathrow on suspicion of conspiracy to commit FGM and a 13 year old Sierra Leonean girl taken into the care of social services,” says Dr Ann-Marie Wilson, Executive Director of 28 Too Many. “Our research shows that there is much to be done, as highlighted in the 12 recommendations in this report, but I am pleased to see an increase in work to end FGM and growing pressure for change.”
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