Penetrating the Silence in Sierra Leone: A Blueprint for the Eradication of Female Genital Mutilation
By Chi Mgbako, Meghna Saxena, Anna Cave, Nasim Farjad, Helen Shin
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The African grassroots movement to eradicate female genital mutilation (also known as “female genital cutting” and “female circumcision,” hereinafter “FGM”) is widespread. While many African countries and grassroots organizations have made great strides in their efforts to eliminate FGM, Sierra Leone lags behind. In Sierra Leone, FGM is practiced within the bondo secret society, an ancient, all-female commune located in West Africa and also known as the sande.1 The bondo society’s traditional role was to direct girls’ rites of passage into adulthood.2 In order to become a member of the bondo, a girl or woman must undergo various rituals, the most significant being FGM. FGM involves the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.3 FGM falls into three categories, all of which are practiced in Sierra Leone. Type I, sunna, involves removing the prepuce (the tissue protecting the head of the clitoris). Type II, excision, involves removing the prepuce and the clitoris together with partial or total excision of the labia minora (the folds of skin at the opening of the vagina). Type III, infibulation, involves removing part or all of the external genitalia and stitching the vaginal opening closed. 5 The fact that FGM takes place within secret societies in Sierra Leone makes eradication efforts more challenging. It is for this reason that Sierra Leone has been described as “ground zero” in the fight to eradicate FGM.
When implementing anti-FGM campaigns in Sierra Leone, non-governmental organizations (“NGOs”) and activists must tailor their efforts to reflect the existence and influence of the bondo society. Efforts to eliminate FGM have proven unsuccessful when FGM opponents have ignored its social and economic significance. External intervention—without gaining the trust of the community—has been viewed by communities as cultural imperialism, thereby strengthening the resolve of communities to continue FGM. Many African communities reject anti-FGM programs that paint a picture of FGM as an oppressive and brutal patriarchal tradition. This “discourse of oppression” that describes FGM as a form of ritualized child abuse has influenced activist groups seeking to end the practice; such groups often adopt confrontational and accusatory approaches that alienate practicing communities.8 In short, confrontational programs that do not take into consideration the complexities and the context of FGM have had little success. Today, most organizations disfavor the use of the “discourse of oppression” and instead try to develop programs with a better understanding of the socio-cultural context in which FGM occurs.9 Such projects involve new, culturally sensitive strategies such as education, sensitization, and community collaboration with the help of local NGOs.10