The story of a 14 year old girl's initation into the Bondo society
The subjects name has been changed for confidentiality.
Mariatu was 14 years old when she was forcefully initiated into the Bondo society. Being initiated gives you higher social status and freedom of movement as a woman in Sierra Leone. For initiation the girls are taken into a place called the Bondo Bush where they are circumcised and often spend several days there healing and being taught how to “be a woman” according to Salonean standards (cook and care for a husband etc).
It was Mariatu’s mother who made her go for initiation. Her father didn't want it to happen but in matters like this, the woman has the final say. Mariatu, with no idea of what was going to happen, was taken, with a group of about 30 girls mostly aged between 9 - 17 but also including some adults and pregnant women, to the Bondo Bush for initiation. Still unaware what was to come, the 30 girls were lined up in one room and not allowed to move.
One by one each girl was progressively taken from the start of the line, where 4 women (members of the society who have been through initiation before) forcefully pinned the girl to the floor, holding her arms and spreading her legs, whilst 2 women (known as Soweis) spread open the labia and proceeded to slice off the girls (often undeveloped) clitoris and labia minor. (In some cases the labia major is also removed and in the most extreme cases the vaginal opening is then sewn closed).
Mariatu, and all the other girls had to stand and watch, as each girl was taken, struggling and sliced with a small razor blade. Fortunately for Mariatu’s group a new razor blade was used each time but in some cases the same blade, shard of glass or kitchen knife is used for every girl, potentially spreading HIV and other infections to every girl cut. The girls had no choice but to see the collective blood pooling on the floor, and hear the screams of the other girls having the most sensitive organ in the human body tortured and mutilated before it was their turn.
Mariatu described how she watched 3 of the girls die during the procedure, the procedure she was just about to be subject to. The Sowei women (practitioners of the cutting) are believed in society to have supernatural powers and are feared, they tell the parents that if their child dies, they are not allowed to cry as they have been taken for a special purpose by the devil.
When it was Mariatu’s turn they took her, screaming and kicking, and held her against the floor, her clitoris was removed and one side of her labia minor was removed, however she described that she struggled so much they couldn't hack off the other side of the labia and so just left it like that.
After the cutting the girls wounds and vaginas were stuffed with herbs to “help healing” which Mariatu described as giving an indescribably excruciating burning pain. Mariatu said her genitals were unbearably painful for the following 6 months and her pain was even worse when she had to pee or was menstruating.
Mariatu is now a woman, 25 years old with no children as of yet. Currently she lives with no clitoris and half a labia. She said she no longer has pain in general, but suffers difficulties during menstruation and is subject to repeat infections. She has never felt pleasure during sex, her stimulation organs are gone, and what is left is just pain. She said during sex she just feels extreme pain, but she wants to please her man so endures it. The process she went through is traumatic, harrowing and barbaric and the fact she now has to live with that for the rest of her life from a decision against her will is heart breaking.
Her mother, is now apparently against FGM but despite claiming to be a nurse, asked to read the results of the study we were conducting to determine if FGM is bad or has any good effects!! a nurse!! a medical ‘professional’ who doesn't know if FGM is bad or not. Again this highlights how unaware people in Sierra Leone are regarding FGM.
There is no religious text promoting FGM and the men are starting to prefer women with a clitoris but for some reason, due to its deep rooting in Sierra Leonean culture the practice prevails. Politicians don't speak out against FGM in the fear they will lose voters due to the power and influence of the Soweis and the Soweis will never stop unless they have alternative ways to earn their livelihood.
FGM is a huge problem and a huge taboo in this country, most girls have undergone it, but nobody will speak about it between themselves and the fact it exists seems to be brushed under the carpet. Viable solutions, estimated to be effective through our research include education in schools and for parents, religious leaders to speak out against it, provision of alternative income to Soweis, and legislation measure by the government, not to ban the practice, but to make it illegal until the age of consent. No right minded 18 year old, who has started to experience sexual activity would ever chose to undergo that procedure and so a law banning FGM for girls U18 is arguably the most important solution to making the practice safer, less barbaric, of free will and eventually reduced. However unfortunately, this is also the most unlikely solution to happen in reality, because, politics. Therefore the priority for now lies on awareness and education.
This is how we can help, and you can help too by funding the project to build an education centre in Makomp to host FGM awareness workshops and classes for adults and children alike.