FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (WOMENSENEWS)–Olayinka Koso-Thomas cradles the brown plastic pelvis, complete with a removable groin, in her arms. This is her favorite teaching tool which she uses to give demonstrations in towns and villages to the women of Sierra Leone on female genital mutilation.
At her office in a bustling Freetown neighborhood–where the paint peels off the walls and there’s no running water or electricity in the typical shortages that plague post-war Sierra Leone–she slides in a final piece.
It’s a vagina with a crowning baby’s head spattered in red paint, meant to symbolize the traumatic birth-giving experience a woman who has undergone FGM can expect. After a girl has been cut, scar tissue can form and skin that has lost its natural elasticity can tear during labor, leading to excessive bleeding.
Koso-Thomas, a gynecologist who first spoke out against FGM publicly at a conference on traditional practices in 1984, is one of a small but growing number of women in Sierra Leone who are voicing their opinions against the widespread practice of FGM, which many say is fueled by corrupt campaign practices.
In August the All Peoples’ Congress opposition party wrested parliamentary power from the ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party. A run-off to determine president will be held Sept. 8. The West African country is still scarred from more than a decade of devastating civil war.
In the meantime, activists in this West African country say female teens will have their clitoris and labia minora cut off at no cost to their families as part of the routine practice of vote buying, where free T-shirts or a bit of cash can help prompt voters to turn out for campaign rallies.
FGM Practitioners Wield Power
FGM is practiced in about 28 African countries, according to the World Health Organization, and has been outlawed in only 15, according to the United Nations Population Fund. But what makes it particularly difficult to combat in Sierra Leone is the political and social power of many of the women who perform it.
Practitioners form “secret societies”–which Koso-Thomas says exclude men and intact, non-mutilated women–and are widely seen as influential. Cuttings are carried out in secrecy by the women and the procedure itself is not discussed with outsiders.
Politicians routinely try to win the support of these societies, says Laurel Bangura, another anti-FGM campaigner based in Freetown, by offering to pay for the mutilation of girls and to win the votes and support of their parents. Bangura said it can cost up to $200 to mutilate a girl, depending on her family’s wealth.
Bangura and Koso-Thomas both said politicians’ fear of the influence of the practitioners and supporters of FGM were widely suspected last June when a clause outlawing female circumcision was removed at the last minute from a child protection bill in parliament.
Bangura said votes to outlaw the procedure could have meant the end of political careers and possible influence over the FGM practitioners who wield power in their communities. Bangura said politicians feared being voted out if they were to have supported illegalization of FGM during an election year.
“The political leaders want (FGM to stay legal) because they can control the initiators and their votes,” said Bangura.
Social Pressures to Conform
In a country where an estimated 90 percent of women have undergone female genital mutilation, social pressures to conform can be overwhelming, says Koso-Thomas.
“The thing is so deep-seated, it’s entrenched in the psyche of Sierra Leonean women,” said Koso-Thomas, a native of Nigeria who has lived in Sierra Leone for more than three decades.
In the years since she began speaking against FGM, Koso-Thomas says she has been subject to harassment and threats. Rocks are often thrown at her office and she says rocks once broke the windshield of her car. In 1987, she wrote a book on female genital mutilation in Sierra Leone, which was promptly banned by the government.
But in her medical practice, she’s seen first hand the effects of genital mutilation, which include lifelong health problems caused by infections due to dirty equipment. And during childbirth, problems including obstetric fistulas, which often leave women incontinent and shunned from their families, can form.
She decided she could not stop her campaign, whatever the consequences. “My conscience tells me it’s wrong and we have to stop,” she said.
Advocates Face Threats
Bangura says when she goes into villages to conduct education campaigns she is threatened with witchcraft, including one time when a villager shot her with a “witch gun”–usually a stick or other item endowed with powers–and another villager had to perform counter-witchcraft to reverse the potential harm.
Unlike most Sierra Leonean girls, Bangura chose to be cut. Her father, who had protected her from FGM because he belonged to the minority Krio tribe who typically do not follow the custom, died when she was around 18. Her mother, who belonged to another tribe, persuaded her to have it done.
Bangura talks about the day in plain terms. She talks about how the initiator tickled her clitoris to engorge it before slicing it off with a small knife, the same blade that was used on other girls. She talks about older women sitting on her chest and legs to hold her down, even though she was old enough to know what she had agreed to.
In 2000, Bangura heard Koso-Thomas speaking on the radio about FGM. She says hearing her and remembering what her own experience was like was enough to convince her to speak out.
Bangura’s been able to give birth to a son, who is now 16. But genitally mutilated women often suffer prolonged labor that can lead to hemorrhaging and stillbirths. Women who have had the type of FGM most usually practiced in Sierra Leone are 32 percent more likely to have their babies die than women who have not been cut, according to a WHO study released last year.
Koso-Thomas says education campaigns are slowly taking root, with a younger generation of Sierra Leonean girls beginning to turn against genital mutilation.
One campaigner managed to persuade 35 practitioners to give up cutting last year with promises of other employment, Koso-Thomas said.
And Bangura said education campaigns with the help of traditional and religious leaders in the months leading up to the election may have cost the government some votes.
“The ruling party could have lost a lot of votes because of our activities,” she said.
But Bangura and Koso-Thomas say victories will be marginal until the government acts to outlaw the practice.
“The parents say there’s no law against it,” Koso-Thomas said. “What would have helped us more is if the government had come out against it.”
Emily Bowers is a freelance journalist based in Accra, Ghana.
This series is supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.