By Mariama Dumbuya
Perusing through various fora/social media I note the hot debate regarding the banning of FGM in Sierra Leone. The unending “put under the carpet” issue of FGM reared its ugly head to gain the lime light once more because of the death of a 19 year-old lady who allegedly was initiated prior to her demise or died in the hands of the Soweis.
Upon careful reflection, I support the call for our Legislature to speedily enact a law that will clearly ban FGM for under 18 years-old.
However in the case of above 18 years let the individual’s choice prevail. I do not mean to offend but please note that I’ll try to explain clearly the reasons for my stance.
FGM BELOW 18 YEARS
Factually, majority of initiates of FGM are mostly under 18s; so banning FGM will reduce the practice to minimal level or almost nonexistent level. It will be difficult and rare for someone above 18 to willingly subject herself to FGM. In effect, the number of initiates will be drastically reduced.
I read somewhere that Islam supports FGM in order to reduce the desires of women. I wonder why anyone will like to reduce the desire of another by cutting off what God in His wisdom decided to create. There is no reference to FGM in the Qur’an (see Denny Federick Mathewson (2001) in McAuliffe, Jane Dammen, Encyclopedia of the Qur’an, 1 AD, pg 366-367). There is, however, reference to the practice in other Islamic texts. (I intend to get clarification of such references from Islamic scholars).
Every person is born different. Some people are sensitive than others, therefore cutting the clitoris to control female desires is totally unacceptable where there has been NO CONSENT. In this regard, a child initiated might grow up to want a clitoris. It is unfair, inhumane, and a violation of the rights of the child and gross abuse to deprive the initiated girl child of the right to select whether or not to have her clitoris is to be removed at the age of 18 years upwards.
Traditions are good to maintain, but harmful traditions should be discarded. Nigerians used to mark their faces by cutting/marking them with sharp objects. These days that practice or tradition is almost non-existent because Nigerians must have realised that marking/cutting their faces negatively impacts them when socialising with other nationalities.
Our Child Rights Act of 2007 is clear that any person below 18 years is regarded as a child. A child cannot give consent. Therefore, we must sensitise that initiating any child below 18 years is against the Child Rights Act. The Child Rights Act clearly lays emphasis that the duty of upbringing a child is not just left with the parents and family but the community at large.
In canvassing for banning initiation of girls below 18 years, it brings to mind circumcision of boys below 18 years for health (cleanliness) reason. In this case, should it be an exception because of the beneficial nature to keep the penis clean? I hold the view that if indeed circumcision of boys is related to health then there is a justification for continuing the practice.
Can the same be said of FGM?
However, another practice comes to my mind. The practice of piercing ears of girl/ child/ women for beauty purpose. This as we know is mostly done when the girl child is below 18 years. Is this okay to pierce the ears of a child below 18 years because it is traditional practice to most likely enhance the beauty of the girl child? Where do we stop accepting certain traditional practices? Where do we draw the line? Piercing is also painful and can mutilate if not done properly. It’s worthy to note that it is rare to see mutilated ears because of piercing. It is further worthy to note that piercing of ears is found almost all over the world.
Going back to the main subject, we should ask ourselves what is/are the advantageous benefit(s) derived from cutting the clitoris of women and girls of a particular group or culture? If the answer is to reduce sexual desire then I wonder why other women from different cultures are normal yet they have their clitoris intact. Food for thought for our dear Sowies.
The fact that the cutting is done using crude cutting implements poses serious health risk which leaves the community at large with the onus to step in to control the practice. The traditional rites of the Bondo society (excluding cutting the clitoris) should (I’d say must) be preserved because it enhances our culture. I personally love to see the “Bondo devil” masquerade. I love its unique style of dance/dress and the way the mask is carved. Beautiful and artistic. These are unique cultural aspect that we should preserve to maintain and have a unique culture. A society without culture will not stand above societies with culture. We need to preserve our unique culture that the Bondo rites (excluding the cutting) promotes. That is training young girls to be better in a cultural way. This training MUST EXCLUDE cutting of the clitoris.
18 YEARS-OLD AND ABOVE
Where a female above the age of 18 years subjects herself willingly without duress to be initiated or undergo FGM, I humbly state that it is the right and prerogative of such a woman/girl. Our Constitution is clear about freedom of Association. The Universal Declaration of human rights is also clear in that regard. I humbly state that the issue of violence against women has no basis in the context of a consenting girl/woman of 18 years and above. It is not violence where there’s consent and willingness. Some people find pleasure in pain. I need not elaborate. It is hard to face but it is the reality of a democratic society; the right to choose.
What can we say about plastic surgery? Many women undergo plastic surgery and get a botched job scarring them for life; mutilating them for life. Can we stop such a practice done by Doctors? It is not because we do not have such facilities in Sierra Leone but the fact is there’re many Sierra Leonean women who have altered their bodies by plastic surgery one way or another. I see FGM for above 18 years old the same way I see a consenting adult opting for plastic surgery or getting a tattoo. It is their business, solely their business. It is their right as a consenting adult. There’re many other examples of consenting adults exercising their rights.
THE WAY FORWARD
The way forward to control the practice is to ensure that the procedure is done in a safe and healthy way. Therefore, our lawmakers or Government should enact law or regulation that will set a standard for the procedure conducted during FGM. This will serve as a check and guidelines for Soweis to follow and adhere when carrying out the procedure on a consenting adult. There should be penalties in the event of default.
On the issue of girls below 18 years, the government should enact the ban as soon as possible. It is not fair to take away the right to have a clitoris from a girl child who cannot give consent. Let girls decide whether or not they want to have clitoris when they are old enough to make the decision. The Commission set up by virtue of the said Act empowers the Commission in section 11(a) “to keep under review legislation and customary practices relating to children with a view to advising Government, where appropriate, to adopt legislation and other measures so as to ensure their compatibility with the principles and provisions of the convention”.
The Commission is further empowered in section 11(e) to undertake “through professional training, adult education and child rights promotional activities aimed especially at…female genital mutilation…” The Commission is also empowered in the same section to render advice regarding laws relating to children in the spirit of promoting the content of the convention.
THE USE OF THE WORD MUTILATION (Food for thought)
Is it mutilation that is done during initiation? Did the word emanate because certain Sowies do mutilate the bodies of girls/women? We need to have stories/facts from girls/women in Sierra Leone in that regard. We need evidence in that regard. I thus call on Sierra Leonean women who have been mutilated by initiation, cutting of the clitoris, to speak up so that we have tangible facts/evidence to back up/support the word “mutilation”. There’re many girls/women who have had their clitoris cut off yet are highly sexual active and sensitive.
Mutilation according to Oxford Dictionary is “infliction of serious damage on something”. In the light of this definition of mutilation, can one safely say the cutting of the clitoris is mutilation for all? I note that some cutting are extreme thus leading to mutilation in the strict sense; whereas in others the cutting has not affected the women and girls in anyway. I’m personally undecided in this regard. Food for thought.
THE DEATH OF THE 19 A YEAR-OLD GIRL
I do not know whether investigation has been concluded on the death of the 19 year-old girl or case charged to court. However, I wonder if murder will hold. It is my humble opinion that even if she died at the hands of the Soweis, except “intent to kill” (mens rea) is present it will be that of manslaughter and not murder. May her soul rest in peace.
Let me end by repeating that it is high time that our lawmakers take the bold step and amend the Child Rights Act of 2007 to clearly ban FGM or cutting of the clitoris of children because cutting of the clitoris does not promote “the long and short term best interests of the child”.