FGM and AMNet Kambia

Jonah:  There is a vacant look in women’s faces here that often reads like an IV drip of despair. Still, even the saddest faces brighten upon being greeted in the local Themne language:

“Seke, momo, (Hi, Thanks!)” we call out. The responses are immediate:

“Momo! Seke (Thanks! Hi). Tope Ndera? (How’s your body?)”

“Tonto Kuru! (Thanks to God!),” we answer, the salutations complete. A warm, amused smile remains on these beautiful faces, carried back low to the ground as women continue chopping cassava or washing clothes.

Beyond the obvious strains of motherhood (usually multiples of babies with little break in between), lifelong strenuous physical work, and few opportunities for education, women in Sierra Leone, live their entire lives with the scourge of deformed, often destroyed genetalia. Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is a traditional practice rooted in the belief that its use will reduce sexual desire of women and help keep women chaste for their husbands.

One of the most comprehensive studies done on the subject of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) – a 2006 study by the World Health Organization, UNICEF, Harvard Law School, Inter-African Committee on Harmful Traditional Practices (IAC), Foundation for Women’s Health, Research, and Development (FORWARD), United Kingdom Department for International Development (UFID), and UNICEF – provides heart-wrenching information. FGM is prevalent in Sierra Leone, along with “28 countries in Africa and parts of the Middle East and Southeast Asia,” the rate of prevalence rate highest in Guinea with 99% of women undergoing the practice. “It is estimated that between 100-400 million girls and women have undergone some form of FGM and that each year three million girls in sub-Saharan Africa, Egypt and Sudan are at risk of undergoing the practice.”

Moreover, “short-term physical health complications associated with FGM…include severe pain, bleeding, shock, acute urine retention, infections and even death. The long-term complications reported include failure of the wound to heal, recurrent urinary tract infections, pelvic infection, infertility, keloid scarring, abscesses, cysts, and clitoral neuroma [A tumor of nerve tissue].” All this, not to mention the lifelong inability to have experience sexual pleasure and the emotions as a result. All this pain, this documented and widespread violation of human rights, to keep the woman pure, to keep men satisfied. “FGM violates the fundamental rights of girls and women to achieve the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.”

A few days ago we interviewed Joseph Sowa, a pastor and AMNet Human Rights Officer (who is paid for neither, at present, completely voluntary), a man with incredible knowledge of the many secret societies here in Sierra Leone, such as the Bondo in Kambia, and their use of FGM. A former secret society member turned humanitarian activist, Joseph is one of few people who can still enter the societies to observe the sacred rites. He is both respected and feared by current society members for his intimate knowledge of the society and his current advocacy. Joseph was able to give us a detailed account of the female initiation process by Sowies (female society members responsible for the actual FGM) and the many steps involved. He spoke in frank, graphic terms about the emotional state of women who had undergone the “bush surgery,” and recounted deaths as a result of the practice, usually from blood loss.

Registered Sowies (FGM initiators) from the Bondo Society and Ashley

 Both Arun Turay and Joseph Sowa, AMNet co-ordinator and Human Rights Officer, respectively, here in Kambia, are pivotal in monitoring the recent Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that was signed in Kambia District. As Ashley noted in a previous blog entry, the MOU prevents any Sowie from using FGM on any girl younger than 18 and, at that age, the girl must consent for the process to be carried out. While complete abolition of the practice is the eventual goal, Arun has made it clear that the only way for this is happen is gradually, through inter-generational dialogue and sensitization training. Moreover, the hope is that girls reaching the age of 18 will then be more equipped (and hopefully more educated) to make a personal choice regarding the practice. Kambia is the first district (out of Sierra Leone’s thirteen total) to have agreed on this major step towards eradicating the barbaric use of FGM. It remains a major accomplishment. Still, resources are needed so that FGM violations can be monitored and those refusing to abide by the current law can be brought to justice.

AMNet Kambia currently has three staff members, all of whom operate on a completely voluntary basis; the AMNet headquarters in Freetown does not have enough funds to pay them a salary. Arun has not been paid in two years. Fatmata Bangs, the secretary, cannot afford the 2,000 Leones (50 cents) for motorcycle taxi to the office each day. Pastor Joseph Sowa still tries to make it to the office as much as he can, despite the fact that he has to walk 2 miles to get there, a motorbike being too expensive. All three are married, with children, all using their dwindling personal resources to continue the work of combating human rights violations in Kambia District and Sierra Leone at large.

Kambia District is made up of seven chiefdoms, Mambolo Chiefdom being the farthest at 36 miles away. Currently, Arun covers all seven chiefdoms; his visits, however, are limited by his personal funds and the inevitable maintenance fees of traveling on unpaved, rough roads. With one motorbike for the entire office, it is impossible to effectively monitor the Bondo Society and their Sowies’ use of FGM for initiation. This is a necessity to enforce the MOU signed November, 2007.

Last week – Ashley rode with Arun while we hired another motorbike driver to take me – we visited several of the chiefdoms to give a training on the newly implemented Child Rights Act and to follow-up on the MOU regarding FGM. Arun would usually do such trainings alone, while Joseph, an expert on child rights and FGM, has to remain at the office because they cannot afford to hire another motorbike. A man of incredible insight into the Bondo Society, with the ability to bring great amounts of understanding to the outside world through rich documentation, stuck in the office because of lack of funds.

To date, there have been few experiences more painful than hearing a woman describe the process of ‘female circumcision’ as a child of 5 years old…and the lifetime of physical/emotional complications, miseducation, and fear created as a result. FGM is a clear violation of UN Human Rights (as outlined in the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women & UN Special Session on Children) and basic human dignity.

And, people like Arun Turay, Fatmata Bangs, and Joseph Sowa are tireless servants working to stop the injustice of FGM on these poor, marginalized, uneducated, vulnerable, precious women in the world. Ashley and I want to help AMNet Kambia with efforts to educate, and bring dialogue to, the various chiefdoms of Kambia District regarding the use of FGM. Specifically, we are working to raise funds to help AMNet Kambia purchase another motorbike (including licensing, insurance, and maintenance fees) and digital camera so that FGM monitoring can take place in all seven chiefdoms of Kambia District. Our goal is to raise $3000 for AMNet Kambia; this will enable Pastor Sowa to join Arun’s field work in Kambia District and help ensure the safety of innumerable young women.

Activism done for the local people, by the local people who understand the culture best. We ask for your help to ensure that no female, at any age, has her fundamental rights of taken away by harmful traditional practices.

A link for this fundraiser will be at this blog website in a few days or so. Please come back. And help support Compassion First’s partner in Sierra Leone, Advocacy Movement Network (AMNet) and this vital cause.

For more information on the subject, please visit:

United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA): http://www.unfpa.org/gender/practices2.htm

World Health Organization (WHO): http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs241/en/

United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) : http://www.unicef.org/protection/index_genitalmutilation.html

And, there are many videos on You Tube regarding FGM – many horrifically graphic: all, terrifying and sad.

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