By: African Women are Free to Choose
The Term Female Genital Mutilation Violates the Rights of Bondo/Sande Women and Girls in Sierra Leone
Dear President Koroma,
As a non-partisan and non-political group of women of Sierra Leonean descent based in The Republic of Sierra Leone and in the Diaspora, African Women are Free to Choose (AWA-FC), we wish to express our concerns regarding the Government’s ambivalent position with respect to traditional female genital surgeries, also referred to locally by many women as female circumcision or Bondo.
Female circumcision is an integral part of female initiation into the traditional women’s associations that are known throughout the country as Bondo or Sande. Traditional female circumcision is practiced in parallel with traditional male circumcision, which is managed by traditional men’s association commonly referred to as Poro. Routine male circumcision also takes place in health centers, clinics and hospitals throughout the country and as part of Islamic religious traditions.
To begin with, we would like to thank Your Excellency for your tireless service to the people of Sierra Leone, especially to the women who make up a majority of the population. Sir, we have seen over the last five years, the great strides your Government has made in appointing women to serve at top levels of Government and civil service and investing in girls’ and women’s health and educational advancement. We unreservedly support your Agenda for Change and have every confidence that you and the First Lady, Madame Sia Nyama Koroma, have the best interest of girls and women in Sierra Leone as a top concern.
Your Excellency, as you are keenly aware, Bondo/Sande women in Sierra Leone have led the way in transcending historical barriers to women in traditional politics, local and national Government. In Government, Bondo/Sande women excel as civil servants, members of parliament and cabinet ministers and have served as distinguished First ladies and even paramount chiefs dating back several hundred years.
In the professions, many of us are doctors, lawyers, nurses, midwives, engineers, scholars and so on. We are affluent businesswomen and market traders. Modern Bondo/Sande women defy the myth that these traditional associations are static “secret societies” steeped in tradition, primitive beliefs and the anachronistic aim of teaching young girls and women to become “good housewives”.
As a new movement that seeks to advocate for the rights of our traditional associations Bondo/Sande as well as all girls and women in rural and peri-urban areas in Sierra Leone, we wish to express our deepest concerns with respect to your past pronouncements and recent policies spearheaded by your Government to abolish and criminalize what opponents ethnocentrically and offensively refer to as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) comprises all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genital or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.”
Sir, a recently published report states that over 88% of women in Sierra Leone have undergone “FGM” (UNICEF, 2013). Another study indicates that the most prevalent forms of “FGM” among women and girls in Sierra Leone are the so-called lesser forms WHO Types I and II (Bjalkander, Grant, Berggren, Bathija, & Almroth, 2013).
Type I consists of partial or complete removal of clitoral hood or foreskin and Type II consists of trimming of labia minorae and excision of exposed clitoral glans along with foreskin. As with uncircumcised women, the bulk of the clitoral organ is subcutaneous and remains intact in all WHO categories of “FGM”.
While WHO classification of FGM Types I and II may be described as partial removal of the external female genitalia, most Sierra Leonean women and girls who have undergone these traditional surgeries consider them to be aesthetic and hygienic improvements (Ahmadu, 2009) and over 74% support the continuation of female circumcision (UNICEF, 2013).
Thus, the vast majority of Sierra Leonean circumcised women and girls reject the description of WHO Types I and II as “injury” and the definition of their genital operations as “mutilation”. As mentioned above, there are some exceptions – a few women have stated publicly and in private to friends or family that what they see and experience constitutes genital “mutilation”.
While we agree with any language they choose to label themselves and recognize their rights and obligation to give voice to others who may also feel the same way, we wish to state clearly that their views and experiences do not reflect the views and experiences of the majority of Sierra Leonean women – as indicated in the UNICEF report and other research documents.
All women and girls – circumcised or uncircumcised – in Sierra Leone are equal under the law and the experiences of a minority do not automatically trump the rights of the majority under the Constitution of Sierra Leone and the democracy that prevails in our country.
Your Excellency, the basic human rights and dignity of circumcised girls and women – including our own mothers and grandmothers – in Sierra Leone are casually violated each day by the use of the ethnocentric, racist and sexist term “mutilation”. The term FGM is used unreflectively by your Government, the local and international media, and the very international agencies and organizations that are responsible for advancing human rights and ensuring that the basic principles of human rights are enjoyed by and protected for all.
Sir, the APC-led Government was elected and re-elected in 2008 and 2012 with the vast support of women in Sierra Leone, the bulk of whom have undergone and are supporters of female circumcision or are members and supporters of Bondo or Sande. Therefore,
We ask on behalf of the vast majority of women in Sierra Leone who are members of Bondo or Sande, who are circumcised and are supporters of female circumcision:
1) For the immediate cessation of the official use – by Government, local media, United Nations, International Organizations and Agencies, NGOs, Members of the Diplomatic Community and other official bodies – of the terminology Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) or Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) to define our bodies and our experiences.
The terms FGM or FGM/C are a grave insult to circumcised women and girls, our mothers and grandmothers, and represent the greatest affront to the dignity and sanctity of Bondo/Sande. The terms that are acceptable to most Bondo/Sande women and girls to describe our genital surgeries and complementarity with male genital surgeries is female circumcision.
2) That Your Excellency places an immediate moratorium on signing any further human rights protocols or special provisions, national policies, legislation or dubious MOUs (Memorandum of Understanding) that redefine female circumcision as “mutilation” or discriminates on the basis of gender with respect to an age of consent, parental rights, and family privacy.
3) That this moratorium remains in place until AWA-FC can identify qualified, independent representatives or advocates on behalf of the bulk of Sierra Leonean women and girls who support female circumcision to involve in official deliberations or decision-making – including those that pertain to our international and UN obligations.
We laud Your Excellency for creating a gender advisor position at your office and appointing a dynamic, smart, and dedicated woman, Naasu Fofanah, who is also a proud member of Bondo/Sande. However, we are also aware through your public statements that Ms. Fofanah’s role is to ensure that your office follows through on the specific international commitments that call for the criminalization and eradication of female circumcision in Sierra Leone.
4) For legal representation – identified by AWA-FC – on behalf of decision-makers or officials within Bondo and Sande in any and all discussions, proceedings and formal signing of legally or non-legally binding documents or MOUs with officials of Government.
The bulk of women who comprise Bondo or Sande, including the hierarchy, have little or no formal western education and it is therefore necessary to ensure that these women understand the nature and language of such agreements, that there is due process, and that their rights are not being compromised or unintentionally violated in any way.
Full open letter will be made available on March 8, 2014 at www.fuambaisiahmadu.com under AWA-FC.
Contact: Fuambai Sia Ahmadu, PhD
African Women are Free to Choose