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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Ending FGM in Sierra Leone

Posted by Sulakshana Gupta on Monday, October 12, 2009

Recently some progress has been made towards eliminating FGM in Sierra Leone, by addressing the women that actually perform the ceremony, the sowies (initiators). Many have agreed to stop forcing girls below the age of 18 to undergo circumcision. Also, in some parts of the country they've consented to give it up as altogether if provided an alternate source of livelihood.

Human rights groups have been beating their drums against FGM for years. The process of initiation has less controversial aspects, such as training in singing, dancing and how to manage household chores, but it's the actual circumcision part that is hotly debated.

One of the main concerns is the initiation of teenage girls. Traditionally, young girls are taken into the bush as soon as they hit puberty, although different ethnic groups do it at different ages. Some initiate girls as young as three and five and sometimes even a month-old baby.

In 2007, the Government of Sierra Leone passed the Child Rights Act, which prohibits acts of cruelty against children. The Act doesn't explicitly decry FGM, presumably because the practice enjoys a considerable amount ofpolitical endorsement. A number of local NGOs, however, have been travelling around the country sensitizing sowies about child rights and the need for informed consent to circumcision. As a result, a growing number are on board with only initiating adult women.

I met with one of these NGOs in the village of Grafton in the outskirts of Freetown. The group is Sabi Yu Right (Know Your Rights) and they've registered 60 initiators in the vicinity from the two main ethnic groups in Sierra Leone, the Mendes and the Temnes. Haja Konneh, head initiator of the Mendes in Grafton, says that they had signed a memorandum of understanding with Sabi Yu Right that stated they would only initiate girls who came in willingly and were over 18. 'Sometimes a girl who is 17 comes in but we send her back and tell her to come back in a year,' she says. Soko Kamara, the Temne chief, adds that it is easier to conduct the ceremony if the woman is emotionally mature, instead of a wailing adolescent who doesn't understand what is happening to her. [...]