Kidnapped by women, stripped naked, and paraded through the streets. This was the plight of four women journalists on February 7 in the city of Kenema in the African country of Sierra Leone. The reason? To punish them for reporting on female genital mutilation (FGM). The United Nations reports that 94% of women and girls in Sierra Leone ages 15 – 49 have experienced FGM, which is done to control their sexual urges, make them ready for marriage, and to make them an acceptable female member of society. Women cannot even hold office in Sierra Leone unless they have been cut.
Last year the Sierra Leone government said it would ban FGM, but it has done nothing about it. Patricia Kabbah, the late wife of previous President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, sponsored (paid for) the circumcisions of 15,000 girls in order to get votes for her husband. A decade ago, the woman who later became the Minister of Social Welfare, Gender and Women’s Affairs in Sierra Leone threatened to “sew up the mouths” of those who preach against FGM.
It is hard to imagine that women such as the journalists’ kidnappers, the ex-president’s wife, and a minster of women’s affairs would all advocate the barbaric practice of cutting off the clitoris (and sometimes also the labia) of girls. The practice is often done with a crude knife, razor blade, or even a piece of broken glass and can cause severe bleeding and infection, injure girls for life, make them incontinent, make them infertile, cause complications during pregnancy and childbirth, and can even cause death.
One brave woman in Sierra Leone who is working to stop this practice is 26-year-old Rugiatu Turay. Ms. Turay is a victim of FGM herself. The Independent online reports this about what happened to Ms. Turay when she was 12 years old:
Ms Turay was mutilated at her aunt’s house where she was staying with her three sisters and her cousin. “We didn’t even know that we were going to be initiated,” she says. “They called me to get water and then outside they just grabbed me.”
She was blindfolded, stripped, and laid on the ground. Heavy women sat on her arms, her chest, her legs. Her mouth was stuffed with a rag. Her clitoris was cut off with a crude knife. Despite profuse bleeding she was forced to walk, was beaten and had hot pepper water poured into her eyes.
“My mother had always told me never to let anyone touch me there. I was scared and I tried to fight them off. Nobody talked to me but there was all this clapping, singing, shouting,” recalls Ms Turay. “When I tried to walk on the seventh day I could not walk. All they could say is ‘Today you have become a woman’.”
For the past six years, Ms. Turay has waged a war with the 20 people on her staff against FGM through her organization Amazonian Initiative Movement. She became an activist after a cousin bled to death from FGM. She works to persuade the soweis, the women who do the cutting, to lay down their knives and stop practicing FGM. So far she has convinced 700 to over 1200 soweis (the numbers vary according to different reports) in 111 villages to stop the cutting and participating in the traditional bondo ceremony. Ms. Turay has received numerous death threats, been attacked, and has had magic used against her. Because she is still alive, the local people think she has special powers and they now leave her alone.
Katrina Manson, the journalist who wrote The Independent article, asked President Koroma of Sierra Leone, elected in 2007, his thoughts on FGM and he said “Let people in civil society deal with this issue.” That means that brave people such as Ms. Turay must fight against the 3 million new African girls being mutilated each year, adding to the 92 million already circumcized.
It is shocking that girls as young as FIVE years old are trained to be circumsisers. 35-year-old Marion Kanu, interviewed by Ms. Manson, gave her reasons for practicing it: “I didn’t like it when it happened to me and I worry about the pain of the girl, but I do it because they pay me, and because we met our ancestors doing it.” The woman’s two children also are circumcisers. In this poor country it is a way to make a living. The village elders have an incentive to keep the practice going also; they receive the equivalent of $25 for every circumcision rite.
Sierra Leone ranked last in the UN’s Human Development Index in 2007 and 2008. Life expectancy there is the lowest of any country in the world: 42 years old. Only 25% of women are literate; 37% of the entire population is literate. The country has the highest rate in the world of mothers dying during childbirth: 1,800 women for every 100,000 live births “…largely due to lack of human resources and corruption in the healthcare sector” according to the UN. 25% of children die before the age of five. Annual income is about $240.
This is a country where people are uneducated, live in extreme poverty, and are steeped in traditions and in corruption …all making it extremely difficult to stamp out female genital mutilation. According to the World Health Organization, the best way to begin to do this is literacy, education, and alternative forms of income for the soweis.
International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation is sponsored by UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) each February 6. If you want to help, you might consider going to Unicef.org and making a donation.
Additional information can be found at the Female Genital Cutting Education and Networking Project.