Ebola has devastated Sierra Leone, but has also brought some unexpected solace for the women and girls there.
The country has temporarily banned female genital mutilation (FGM) as part of its aggressive efforts to stop the worst Ebola epidemic on record, Bloomberg reported.
Considering that 88 percent of women in Sierra Leone have undergone the brutal practice, which involves the partial or total removal of the female external genitalia for non-medical reasons, advocates have long struggled to change cultural perceptions there. But because Ebola is spread by contact through bodily fluids, the country has barred the centuries-old practice — for now.
The country, which has experienced more than 10,000 Ebola cases, has set a fine of 500,000 leones ($118) for performing female circumcisions. Human rights organizations see the move as an auspicious opportunity to get rid of the practice for good, according to Bloomberg.
“The fact that some communities have chosen not to practice FGM during the crisis, together with evidence on the effect and impact these bans have had on FGM, could be valuable for developing interventions for total abandonment of the practice,” Owolabi Bjälkander, a UNICEF consultant in Sierra Leone, told Al Jazeera.
Secret society leaders, known as soweis, typically perform the excision, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, and the National Soweis Council is actually helping to implement the ban, Bloomberg reported.
Girls are typically cut between the ages of 9 and 12, before the onset of puberty, with the goal of ensuring that they remain virgins before marriage and are faithful to their husbands once they wed, according to UNICEF.
The practice is usually carried out during summer vacations and in December and early January, meaning that the recent ban has spared an entire wave of girls who would’ve otherwise been cut.
More than 129 million women and girls today have undergone the ritual, which is mainly practiced in 29 African and Middle East countries, according to UNICEF.
The United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution in 2012, calling on all countries to eliminate the practice that comes with a host of concerning health risks.
It can damage adjacent organs and lead to sterility, recurring urinary tract infections, birth complications, the formation of dermoid cysts and in some cases, death.
Despite these health risks, FGM has overwhelming support in Sierra Leone wheremore than half of the female population supports continuing the practice, according to UNICEF.
“When a girl is initiated, it’s a good time for us,” a former sowei told Al Jazeera. “We celebrate. We dance. I’m happy I had the procedure myself. It’s tradition. My daughters had it done too. After this Ebola business is done, I’m confident this tradition will come back.”
But advocates remain hopeful, both because of the effectiveness of the Ebola-related ban and other recent successes.
FGM is legal in Sierra Leone, but community members there have taken steps to help curb the practice.
In 2011, with the help of Amnesty International, community members in northwest Sierra Leone signed a Memorandum of Understanding, which banned female genital mutilation for girls under 18 years of age. It also stated that anyone above that age would have to give their consent before the procedure could be carried out, according to the group.
The organization estimates that the memorandum saved 600 girls from getting cut.
“Sierra Leone could become a female genital mutilation free zone,” Arun Turay, coordinator of the Advocacy Movement Network, said in a statement. “It became clear that people knew they wanted to tackle the issue but did not know how to go about it.”