Can Sierra Leone’s female secret societies be allies in the fight against female genital mutilation?

FGM is a deeply-rooted and widespread practice in the country. Can its locally-powerful practitioners help curtail it?

Shanna F. Jones
26 February 2018

Local NGO AMNet works with soweis and communities to challenge FGM.

Local NGO AMNet works with soweis and communities to challenge FGM. Photo: AMNet.

On a bright April afternoon last year, the Njala University campus in southern Sierra Leone was brimming with prospective nurses, teachers and social scientists. After their lectures, three students and two teenage friends approached a sowei – the head of a female secret society – to ask for bondo (more widely known as female genital mutilation, or FGM).

“I asked them if they were forced into it or if they had a choice. They said they had chosen to do so,” recalled the sowei, Kharaday Zorokong. “I told them exactly what they were going to go through and they said yes, they knew.”

These young women were willing to pay any cost for the procedure, which is widespread in the west African country and typically practiced by soweis. But Zorokong, who is also secretary general for the national sowei council, told me that she does not practice bondo and thus declined their business.

Over the last decade, efforts to challenge FGM have grown and gained higher-visibility in Sierra Leone – where approximately 90% of women and girls have been cut – though not all campaigners agree on how to do this.

The country’s female secret societies have been seen by some anti-FGM campaigners as obstacles to eradicating the practice. But Zorokong says that those who call for bondo’s complete and immediate abolition have misunderstood its significance.

“Somebody just comes with an idea that it should be eliminated straight away – it won't work,” said the sowei, who left her own husband more than 10 years ago amid his disapproval of her decision to advocate for bans on underage and forced bondo.

“In the western world, people think: 'If I am not educated people will look down on me.' It's almost like that in this country with bondo,” she said, adding: “Practicing soweis will agree to stop, and then... they will carry on.”

Zorokong, head of the national sowei council.

Zorokong, head of the national sowei council. Photo: Kharday Zorokong.

There are different forms of FGM, which the World Health Organisation describes as “procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.”

Immediate and long-term consequences can include severe pain and bleeding, infections, and increased risks of complications in childbirth. Girls and women have also died from FGM, though exact figures are unknown.

Internationally, attention towards FGM has grown significantly since the 1990s, with numerous campaigns and resolutions against it. Ending the practice is also part of the United Nations 2030 sustainable development agenda.

But in Sierra Leone it is a complex and locally-respected cultural practice, sold as a rite of passage into womanhood and respectability and practised at initiation ceremonies, after which girls are considered adults, ready to marry and have sex.

It is also a source of income for soweis. An initiation may cost from 700,000 Leones (£70) in rural communities up to 1.6 million Leones (£160) in the capital Freetown. (For perspective: the national minimum wage is 500,000 leones (£50) a month).

Soweis may make promises of almost idyllic-sounding initiation camps where girls are treated like chiefs and taught essential life skills. FGM procedures happen last, along with crude (and unreliable) ‘virginity tests.’

Fourteen year old Mariama describes her experience with bondo as “still my persistent nightmare.”

She was initiated at seven years old, along with her even younger sister. “I hate FGM,” she told me. “I still remember my two-year old sister laying on the floor by me, lifeless after initiation, bleeding.”

“Ten years ago, you would not have had an open conversation with the media on FGM. It was taboo, but now people will openly talk about it."

“Ten years ago, you would not have had an open conversation with the media on FGM. It was taboo, but now people will openly talk about it,” said Hawa Samai, director of local NGO AMNet, which works directly with soweis, including Zorokong, and local communities to change attitudes towards bondo.

She told me that, when AMNet started its first project in the country’s smallest district, Kambia, in northern Sierra Leone: “We didn’t say we were going in on an FGM mission… We said we were there to find out what the problems were with their children to try to fix them. They ended up narrowing it down themselves to child FGM.”

Today the organisation, which also advocates against child marriage, has high-profile supporters including Sierra Leone’s first lady Sia Koroma.

Samai says that many mothers may still see it as embarrassing to have a fully-grown, uninitiated daughter, but now there are also “fathers reporting their wives because their wives want to take their kids for initiation.”

Young women, meanwhile, may not have been cut before due to changes in attitudes towards FGM – but then they may opt for the procedure as adults in order to seem ‘respectable’ to prospective husbands.

First lady Koroma (left) and Samai, director of AMNet (right).

First lady Koroma (left) and Samai, director of AMNet (right). Photo: AMNet.Some of the soweis that AMNet works with, including Zorokong, are advocates for ‘choice’ and focus their own opposition on child and forced bondo.

This is a controversial position, however, as it's difficult to untangle individual consent from the strong social and family pressures to be cut that an 18-year old girl, for example, may face.

In 2016, Scotland Yard reportedly lobbied the British home secretary to prevent a woman from Sierra Leone – understood to be Zorokong – from entering the UK on the basis that she practices FGM.

Zorokong told me that this is untrue; that she does not practice bondo and that while she flew to Europe that year to attend a meeting in Geneva, she never intended to enter the UK.

Samai describes her own goal as the eventual eradication of all forms of FGM, but she stresses that challenging this practice is difficult, delicate work.

It’s “been in the system for centuries, you can't just walk in and say 'it's done with' ... All that will do is send it underground, they may practice it without making any noise about it,” she said.

"You can't just walk in and say 'it's done with' ... All that will do is send it underground."

AMNet’s approach is to engage with young people and local communities and encourage intergenerational communication. It’s held conferences in Freetown and gone into the bush to “rescue underage and forced FGM victims."

The group registers soweis and offers alternative employment training for those who practice FGM. And it convinced local, paramount chiefs from 10 districts to sign memorandums of understanding against forced and child bondo.

Now, Samai says she hopes that laws will be passed against forced and underage FGM after this year’s elections, planned for 7 March 2018.

FGM is not currently illegal in Sierra Leone, though the country finally ratified the African Union’s 2003 Maputo Protocol on women’s rights in 2015. Article five of the protocol seeks to eradicate FGM through legislation.

Bondo has been a hot topic in the election campaigns, and it has been formally banned until after the vote, reportedly to stop candidates buying votes by paying for cutting ceremonies – though the practice is believed to have continued ‘underground.’

For Zorokong, she suggested that soweis’ roles should be repurposed to managing community agricultural projects and ensuring girls go to school. There’s more than one way for a remote community to prosper, she argued.

“But it won’t happen overnight,” she said. “The world is frowning at us for our traditions but you have to watch what is very close to people's hearts… when you go to London people are very concerned about security and you don't joke with that.”

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