by Ami Bhakta
Female genital cutting (FGC) is a pressing issue in Sierra Leone that not only can cause an abundance of health problems in young girls, but is also correlated with dropping out of school and child marriage. It is a serious prohibitor of girls’ potential and impedes on a girl’s ability to control her own body. To combat this problem, conversations need to be started in Parliament about partnering with INGOs to develop educational services regarding the harmfulness and unnecessariness of FGC. These educational services will benefit Sierra Leone as a whole by also promoting democracy and community developing by incorporating community conversation through a nonjudgmental rights-based approach.
Statement of Issue
Progression towards gender equality includes attempting to change legal frameworks and the discrimination that stems from patriarchal attitudes and prevailing gender norms. This includes attempts to alter laws and societal mindsets towards female genital cutting, which will hereby be referred to as FGC. FGC is practice inflicted mainly upon young girls before marriage (typically the only economically viable life choice for women) in order to ensure their purity and to control their sexuality. FGC holds the risk of an abundance of mental and physical problems, including increased risk of HIV, bladder infection, blood loss, menstrual complications, childbirth complications, death, etc. (28 Too Many, 2018). The specific problem being addressed is the lack of policies regarding educational services about the implications of FGC, and thereby the lack of access community leaders, parents, and FGC executors have to these services.
Implementation of educational services teaching on the detriments of FGC are crucial to changing the social convention that revolves around the practice. Today, around 200 million girls in the world have been affected by the practice that defines the legitimacy of a woman and causes unnecessary health problems (28 Too Many, 2018). In Sierra Leone, an African state with one of the highest percentages of FGC practice, it has a prevalence of 89.6%, and the state currently has no laws in place banning FGC; while it was shortly banned in 2014 during the Ebola Crisis, the ban has since been lifted, and there appears to be no sign of discontinuation (28 Too Many, 2018). Eradicating FGC is also important because there is a strong correlation between undergoing FGC and child marriage in some ethnic groups in Sierra Leone, and many drop out of school after being cut (28 Too Many, 2018). If communities in Sierra Leone can slowly begin to condemn FGC, there might be a larger number of girls staying in school and getting married later, which is clear progress on the pathway towards UN Sustainable Development Goal #5 of gender equality. Furthermore, FGC of girls in Sierra Leone is extremely prevalent in households with uneducated mothers (95%), as compared to in households with mothers who have at least secondary education (74.2%) (Bjälkander et al., 2012). If these educational services can get the ball rolling and have girls stay in school for longer, these educated future mothers will work in conjunction with any anti-FGC initiatives or laws in place by the time.
Following the statement of the issue, this policy brief will dive into the origins of FGC and how it plays out in Sierra Leone society today. The lack of policy regarding FGC in general, nevertheless regarding anti-FGC educational programs, certainly warrants critiques. Many anti-FGC initiatives have been implemented in various sub-Saharan African countries, such as alternative rites of passage and alternative employment for FGC executors, but the best approach to take for a long-term cessation of FGC is the approach that advocates for community conversation and dialogue.
Origin of the Problem and the Current Context
Originating in Africa, FGC is currently condoned in 28 countries (Bjälkander et al., 2012). While it is not certain when the practice originated, in the past few decades it has come to be recognized as a human rights violation. In Sierra Leone, 70.1% of women aged 15-19 have undergone FGC compared to 96.4% of women aged 45-49, implying some change through the generations, but this shift is still not as fast as it ideally should be, and many more young girls are still at risk (Bjälkander et al., 2012). Though it is important to know that FGC has no health benefits, the origins of its purpose lie within the misogynistic ideas that a girl is only marriageable and a real woman if she has undergone FGC. The International Center for Research on Women claims that cultural consensus agrees that FGC maintains family dignity and respect, is ingrained in communal and ethnic identity, and improves female hygiene (ICRW, 2018). Aside from this, FGC still has practical implications for Sierra Leonean women today; in order to be marriageable, a woman must be cut, and marriage is often times the only way a woman can financially support herself and her family. As gender roles are an integral part to the various cultures of ethnicities in Sierra Leone, women are expected to remain pure, faithful, and modest—FGC is viewed as a prerequisite for all three (International Center for Research on Women, 2018).
The largest group of FGC excisors in Sierra Leone is known as the Bondo Society, a secret society comprised of all cut women (Bjälkander et al., 2012). The Bondo Society is prevalent in all ethnic communities of Sierra Leone, with 90% of women in the country belonging to the Bondo Society (28 Too Many, 2018). For them, FGC is not viewed as a human rights violation, but rather as entry into a society of women who have elevated community status and power. In the current context, community elders decide when FGC will take place, and then notify the families of all the girls of age; the traditional excisor of FGC, also known as a Sowei in Sierra Leone, visits the families of young girls and informs them of the process of the ritual—FGC is very much a community-based decision (Bjälkander et al., 2012). Women are especially involved in the FGC decision making process for a young girl in the family (and therefore should be key targets of any anti-FGC reform, along with community elders and parents of boys). They are the largest stakeholders in the practice of FGC, as if they are not cut, they are subject to alienation and terms equivalent to “foolish”, “stupid”, “childish”, or “impure”, and if they are cut, it provides them with a sense of community and agency (28 Too Many, 2018). These conditions make it difficult to unweave the precedent FGC has set in the fabric of Sierra Leonean society.
Some earlier campaigns to combat FGC have actually been counterproductive, and have resulted in the medicalization of FGC, which is potent in Sierra Leone today. Anti-FGC initiatives to paint FGC as an inhumane process that leads to severe health problems have resulted in licensed doctors performing FGC in order to satiate parents’ fears of health problems (Bjälkander et al., 2012). Fighting FGC by solely portraying it as a health violation only led to the addition of another acceptable excisor. This has actually further legitimized the practice and depicts in a healthy light because it is being executed by a doctor, even though the same health risks are still present. Because FGC is so culturally accepted and significant, doctors will usually have no problem performing the act. The current context of FGC in Sierra Leone is that it is still widely practiced and encouraged today, regardless of any prior initiatives to eradicate the process.
Critique of Policy Options
It is hard to critique policy options, because currently there is no passed legislation regarding FGC in Sierra Leone today (28 Too Many, 2018). Therefore, this section will target previous attempts to eliminate FGC that have failed and must be avoided. Though Sierra Leone’s constitution addresses the concept of basic human rights, neither the constitution nor parliamentary meetings address “women’s access to resources, education, reproductive health, political representation and perceptions of women in public and private spaces, or basic human rights” (Smart, 2012). There is a great gender disparity regarding conversations about men and women, and parliamentary silence on issues that affect women essentially imply their views on practices ingrained in Sierra Leonean culture, including FGC. Parliament’s failure to tackle the practice helps to sustain its legitimacy in Sierra Leone. In fact, there is even more incentive for Parliamentary members to avoid condemning FGC because it is viewed as a “vote-winner” because it so popular among ethnic enclaves and women in Sierra Leone (Women’s Health Law Weekly, 2005). The only female presidential candidate in 2002 garnered less than 1% of voters, and blames her poor turnout on her anti-FGC stance. Though Sierra Leone signed the Convention for Elimination of Discrimination Against Women in 1988, no legislation has been passed criminalizing FGC because it is not viewed as a threatening women’s rights violation (Women’s Health Law Weekly, 2005).
In Sierra Leone, the Amazonian Initiative Movement has convinced some midwives and other FGC excisors to stop performing the practice by giving them another type of employment (Women’s Health Law Weekly, 2005). However, Sierra Leone’s relationship with FGC is unique because close to all FGC excisors are Soweis from the secret Bondo Society, whose livelihood largely depends on transforming girls to women, which FGC is a big component of. Convincing them to drop the practice will be hard, and if any progress is made, it may be ephemeral, or just make FGC go underground. FGC is so central to the mission of the Bondo that when an organization called Conscious Family launched an anti-FGC campaign, the organization’s leader had to go into hiding due to death threats from the Bondo (28 Too Many, 2018). Even for just speaking out against the practice of FGC, young girls can be forcefully cut by the Bondo because the Sowei wants to initiate girls before they are “‘taken up’ by the human rights discourse” (Bosire, 2012). Converting excisors in Sierra Leone is especially difficult, as compared to other countries like Mali or Somalia where excisors are stigmatized or from a lower class, because excisors in Sierra Leone are revered and “powerful ritual specialists” (Johansen et al., 2013). Given the place of excisors in Sierra Leonean life, converting their employment is not a reliable way to eradicate FGC. Both the Amazonian Initiative Movement and the Inter-African Committee have launched campaigns to give FGC excisors other employment or worked in conjunction with local police forces and schools to convert FGC excisors to farmers (28 Too Many, 2018). Although this approach may have some impact on how many FGC excisors are still employed in the field, this approach does not change the social convention or mindset regarding FGC, and it will still continue to be an in-demand process here for the long-term. According to UNICEF, this approach can work well with complementary approaches, but alone, this was and is not enough to put an end to FGC (28 Too Many, 2018).
As observed, solely focusing on changing the discourse in Parliament, or attempting to provide alternative forms of employment for FGC excisors, fails to spark permanent change against the practice of FGC. The best policy recommendation at this point would be to facilitate community dialogue and to employ a human rights-based approach through mandatory educational services that local communities have easy access to. Assessing the problem of FGC will be best done not by purely passing laws or offering jobs to FGC executors, but by addressing and changing the societal and communal mindsets revolving around the practice to ensure a permanent shift in attitudes toward FGC. Sustaining community conversation and dialogue will not only eventually lead to a consensus among locals that FGC is an unnecessary practice but is also a more fulfilling approach than just targeting a certain group in Sierra Leone in hopes of eradicating the process. Educational services that host these conversations will help local parents, leaders, youth, and medical personnel change their collective societal mindset on the harmful practice of FGC.
Great examples of community wide campaigns (that take into consideration the cultural value of FGC, unlike the two previous approaches mentioned) are Tostan International’s FGC education model in Senegal and the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood’s work in Egypt. In Egypt, by incorporating children, parents, leaders, medical practitioners, journalists, and judges into social media and educational campaigns, the NCCM was able to issue a law which made FGC illegal in the country in 2008 (ICRW, 2018). In Egypt in 2016, FGC moved from being a misdemeanor to a felony. Encouraging dialogue amongst the community and within families is the best way to eradicate the social convention around FGC. For example, one specific employment of this appears in Senegal through the Grandmother Project, which used grandmothers’ revered status within the family hierarchy to foster conversation about community values and traditions (ICRW, 2018). Besides promoting development and democracy, these courses should also remember to maintain using the rights-based approach mentioned earlier. Success of these educational initiatives can be measured based on how many communities deliver a public declaration to abandon FGC, which is a good indicator that the social convention around the practice has changed.
Overall, there is not one direct way to tackle FGC in all countries it is practiced in. Solutions that only cater to one part of the problem are futile; change cannot occur just from trying to persuade members of Sierra Leonean Parliament, or by finding a new job for an FGC excisor. The decision to change must be arrived at by the community. This process takes effort and time, and it takes a culturally sensitive and holistic method that encompasses all members of the community. Educational services are a good idea to implement and be made accessible in Sierra Leone. Referring to them as community development programs instead of anti-FGC initiatives will ensure that the Bondo Society and communities in general do not react harshly to the courses. It is of the utmost importance to start the conversation in Sierra Leonean Parliament about working and partnering with INGOs to set up these educational services in as many communities as possible. Stopping FGC will result in girls going to school for longer and decrease the likelihood of child marriage, a strong step in the path toward gender equality and sustainable development.
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