Genital mutilation: Women fight Africa's taboo

They broke the silence from tribal elders and politicians – but paid a high personal price for trying to protect millions of young girls from the knife

The female journalist was snatched by members of a secret society, forcibly stripped and made to parade naked through the streets. It might sound like an atrocity from the time when Sierra Leone was ripped apart by a bloody civil war, but in fact the public humiliation was exacted in the diamond-rich eastern town of Kenema just this month. The woman's alleged crime was reporting on female genital mutilation.

While the attack was condemned by media watchdogs as "disgraceful behaviour worthy of a bygone age", one woman who was not surprised was Rugiatu Turay. When she was 12 Ms Turay was stolen away by family members and underwent what some politely refer to as "circumcision". She calls it "torture". For the past six years, she has been waging a war against the practice, which many in Sierra Leone, including senior politicians, see as an initiation rite.

Her organisation, the Amazonian Initiative Movement, tries to protect young girls from the knife. "I picked the name because I am trying to talk about strong, powerful women," she says Ms Turay, who works with her 20-strong staff in and around the northern town of Lunsar. So far, she has persuaded about 400 practitioners of female genital mutiliation (FGM), who are often called soweis, to lay down their blades and stop their role in the traditional bondo ceremony. "Silence means consent. But if you say the truth people listen ... We go to the schools, mosques, everywhere."

As reward for her tenacious efforts, she has received death threats and been attacked by juju men, sometimes armed with magic, sometimes with machetes. She describes a time when more than a hundred people paraded a symbolic corpse outside her home to suggest her own death: "They came right in front of me sharpening their cutlasses."

But so many times has she failed to die, that locals now think she is immune. "Now they believe I have special powers. They do nothing to me."

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'."

Ms Turay is among the estimated 94 per cent of girls who undergo FGM in Sierra Leone. The practice – which forms part of a ceremony of initiation rites overseen by women-only secret societies such as bondo and sande – can cause severe bleeding, infection, cysts and sometimes death, but is largely ignored.

Reasons for the process vary, but many people cite tradition and culture, saying it is essential preparation for marriage and womanhood; binds communities to each other and to their ancestors; and restricts women's sexual behaviour.

Last year, UN agencies came out strongly against the practice, labelling it "painful and traumatic", a violation of human rights and demanding it be abandoned within a generation. "It has no health benefits and harms girls and women in many ways," said the UN's World Health Organisation (WHO). "The practice causes severe pain and has several immediate and long-term health consequences, including difficulties in childbirth."

Yet many international aid organisations are too scared to do anything about it in public for fear of being labelled cultural imperialists. A recent Sierra Leone child rights bill dropped any mention of FGM at the last minute, and politicians – including President Ernest Bai Koroma – baulk at the mention of the subject.

A decade ago, a female politician who later became the minister for social welfare said: "We will sew the mouths up of those preaching against bondo." More recently, politicians are rumoured to have sponsored mass cutting ceremonies, which can be relatively costly affairs in one of the world's poorest countries, in an effort to secure votes in elections.

"Secret societies have become intertwined with modern political life in Sierra Leone and retain considerable power and influence," wrote the anthropologist Dr Richard Fanthorpe in a paper commissioned by the UN.

When I asked President Koroma – whose country receives more aid per person from Britain than any other donor recipient – about his position on the practice, it was the first time I saw the usually affable leader lost for words. Unable to reach for his usually ubiquitous wide toothy smile, he meandered awkwardly through an answer: "Let people in civil society deal with this issue."

That leaves the fight against FGM, which the WHO says has been conducted on 92 million African girls – and rising by up to three million a year – to the odd brave soul such as Ms Turay. The 26-year-old is among a number of anti-FGM campaigners slowly achieving results. In her effort to keep some safe from cutting, Ms Turay has even adopted 14 children from Sierra Leone and Guinea.

Girls under 15 regularly undergo the cutting and for the newly initiated, it remains a frightening process shrouded in secrecy. "You should not tell anybody about circumcision or else your stomach will swell and you'll die," one young girl who didn't know her age told me quietly in her local Temne language.

Ms Turay hopes her struggle will help break such taboos of talking about the cutting in public, although it may also spur more reactionary moves, such as this month's punishment meted out to the journalist in Kenema. And it is no easy task persuading the practitioners to abandon what they see as a rite of passage. Girls as young as five are trained to become circumcisers and it is an income-generator in a poverty-stricken country, still struggling to shrug off the legacy of the 1991-2002 civil war.

"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," says practitioner Marion Kanu, 35, whose two children are also practitioners.

Others have seen the error of their ways. "I regret it now," says another sowei who has vowed to stop. But it is not always easy to hang up the knife. One woman practitioner who said she would stop the cutting was kidnapped by members of the bundu society. Both her and her baby were beaten and taken to the bush for three days without food or water; the mother was raped. Her life was saved only by Ms Turay's intervention.

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