By Salaam Deen Bundu
Hundreds of female leaders (Soweys) of the sacred and highly respected secret all-female Bondo Society, converged in Waterloo on Friday 19th May 2017 to perform traditional rites for the unveiling of newly initiated Sowey leaders. The mammoth gathering of ‘Soweys’ from across the country, used the chance to assure the government of the Bondo leaders’ commitment to uphold official government policy which calls for zero tolerance on performing circumcision for girls below 18 years. The event saw a galaxy of Government officials of Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs (MSWGCA) in attendance as well.
The National Chairlady of National Sowey Group, one of the two major Sowey groups in the country, Madam Baromy N’power Mansaray who hosted the event, expressed her appreciation to His Excellency President Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma for his Government’s support and respect for the sacred Bondo. She said the best way to pay him back for his traditional respect shown to them, was to also respect His Excellency’s call on them to totally avoid initiation of girls as girls were children and not women.
“Our Bondo society has many good values which help to keep the communities around the country in good wellbeing so it is a Society which must stay. The Bondo Society continues to be in existence today due to the goodwill of His Excellency and his government. The Honourable Minister of Social Welfare Dr. Sylvia Olayinka Blyden and her ministry officials have spent several months engaging us, through the support of the President. We will always remain grateful to you Mr. President for the respect you have reposed on us as Soweys and as Traditional Leaders in our communities,” she said.
Madam Mansaray, revealed that she herself had traveled across many parts of the country sensitizing her colleagues on the importance of upholding the government policy on protecting girls from being initiated into Bondo.
She said many of her members are now fully on-board and also her members even undertake on-the-spot checking for those violating the Policy of the government. She said they were the ones on the frontlines now to protect girls in the communities.
Madam Mansaray used the forum as an opportunity to call on government to provide alternative support for Soweys so as to ensure that they maintain their families.
“We are still faced with a situation where some of the Soweys only rely on initiation for their feeding. To change that, much needs to be done,” she concluded.
Speaking on behalf of the Northern Region, Madam Ya Nasoko Fleng, thanked the government for their continued support and assured that they would always work in line with the Ministry especially under the leadership of the current Minister. She assures that they will serve as ambassadors to talk to their communities not to initiate children.
The Eastern Region Chairlady Madam Fanta Jopojo Fillie described the event as a momentous one that warrants big celebrations, as they are more than happy to hear that the government is always willing to support them if only they can abstain from initiating children. She vowed to report any Sowey caught initiating children.
Speaking on behalf of the Southern Region, Madam Alice Konneh commended the government for supporting the existence of Bondo society in the country and reassured they will work with their Paramount Chiefs to protect girls in the chiefdoms and shield them until they were 18 years when they had the right to decide Yes or No.
Many of the Soweys from across Sierra Leone, personally thanked the Honourable Minister of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs Dr. Sylvia Olayinka Blyden for sticking out her neck in protecting and promoting women of the Bondo society to exercise their constitutional rights to associate together across the country. They repeatedly assured that they will follow the policy to the letter and will also ensure that they convince fellow women to do likewise whilst also undertaking self policing.
Speaking on behalf of the Government, the Social Service Officer in the Advancement of Women Department at MSWGCA, Mrs. Fatmata Ejiatu Kargbo noted that government has made tremendous effort in ensuring the advancement and promotion of women and girls rights. These instruments she said include the national policy on the advancement of Women, the National Gender Mainstreaming policy, the Child Rights Act and the Agenda for Prosperity among others. She revealed that Pillar 8 of the Agenda for Prosperity was very clear on the issue of female initiation into the Bondo Society as it calls for a ban on girls being put through the secret societies rite of passage. She noted that the Child Rights Act defines the age of children as 18 and therefore it is not permissible to initiate anyone under age 18 years into any secret society.
However, she said, the government respects ‘Bondo’ society as one of the traditional institutions that has contributed to the development of the country. She therefore urged that respect is a two way street so government is urging ‘soweys’ to reciprocrate the respect by protecting a girl’s right to first reach 18 years and beyond before she can be initiated into the society and even at that, only if she so desire.
Madam Fatmata Kargbo commended the Soweys who traveled from across the country to witness that function. She implored them to serve as ambassadors to preach to their colleagues who were not opportune to be at the meeting.
The event itself saw a massive attendance in Waterloo and was well covered by the media.
However, the Ministry officials who spoke to journalists, said they recognised that the protection of girls should be a continuous process with all sectors of the society including the media, to come on-board. Many observers present applauded the efforts of Government and also recognised that given the deeply held traditions, it was essential for such engagements between Government and Soweys to continue.