Women breaking the silence on FGM in Sierra Leone

The country is amongst the top five for FGM with a prevalence rate over 90%

Women breaking the silence on FGM in Sierra Leone

Fatmata Yambasu is at her desk early this morning. She and her team run a modest office in Bo, the main city in the south of Sierra Leone. Her office is a haven from the baking heat of the streets outside.

She runs a small advocacy and community development organisation called Women Against Violence and Exploitation in Sierra Leone (WAVES).
WAVES play a leading part in changing social norms related to FGM in this part of the country. 

WAVES FGM SIerra Leone

Fatmata Yambasu, a tireless campaigner against FGM in Sierra Leone, outside her office

“I can’t tell you how FGM began. If you ask anyone here in Sierra Leone, they won’t be able to tell you the genesis of the practice.

It’s a harmful practice and it has no benefits”.  

FGM in Sierra Leone traditionally marked the passage of a girl from childhood to adulthood and is a precursor to marriage and having sex for the first time. 

Fatmata herself experienced FGM when she was 10 years old.

“It reduces your dignity. It’s painful and up to today I am still living with that mark - that scar - which cannot be repaired.” FGM is practiced on young adolescents throughout the country.

With over 90% of women having undergone the practice, Sierra Leone has the notoriety of being amongst the top five countries where cutting female genitalia is most common.

Much of the cutting involves partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora. This elevates a girl or woman’s risk of serious injury, potentially fatal infections and complicated child birth, in the immediate aftermath and throughout life. 

A recent study from The Gambia - funded by AmplifyChange – found that women who had undergone FGM were three times more likely to need a Caesarean section in childbirth. The same study found that neonatal resuscitation was up to 4 times more likely amongst women who have experienced the most severe forms of FGM. 

Despite these challenges, the response to FGM has been much slower to gain momentum in Sierra Leone than in other countries.

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Quote open It’s got a lot to with tradition, but ultimately it’s to do with power. In the community women have traditionally used power over women.  Quote close

Fatmata Yambasu
amplifychang grantee and anti-FGM CAMPAIGNER, WAVES

Intertwined with political patronage and shrouded in secrecy, the practice is a central initiation into secret societies called the Bondo societies. These women-only societies are traditionally common in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire. Supporters believe they play a central role in ensuring fertility, morality and sexual behaviour.

Politicians often compete to win the favour of such societies in their election campaigns by paying for cutting ceremonies to gain votes. The support of political candidates increases the influence of the Bondo societies.  

This has prevented many activists and civil society groups from speaking out about the subject. 

“It’s got a lot to with tradition, but ultimately it’s to do with power. In the community women have traditionally used power over women. 

Perhaps it’s the only power they felt they had in our communities where men are traditionally in charge.” Fatmata explains. 

Nearby, Liberia and The Gambia recently introduced legislation specifically prohibiting FGM. Community-level activity to address social norms has been increasingly well financed by donors in recent years in countries with high prevalence of cutting.

In Sierra Leone, policy makers have been slow to address the subject and there has been comparatively less support from donors. 

But change is starting to take place. Led by the consistent engagement of local, mostly women-led organisations like WAVES, people are reflecting on this harmful practice. 

Fatmatais at the forefront of that change. 

“Only a few years ago, when I would go on the radio we would have people rioting outside. Now I can talk to anyone about FGM. People are a lot more comfortable with it. We can speak more freely than we used to”.

Change has also been accelerated by public health measures put in place to respond to the Ebola crisis. A ban was placed on a range of traditional practices, including FGM, to prevent transmission of the virus. The ban has not been lifted since.

Ramatu Fornah, from Women’s Action for Human Dignity in Makeni, the main city in northern Sierra Leone, believes permanent change is possible: 

“We’ve got a very real opportunity now. The ban introduced during the Ebola crisis is still in place. We want to work with other organisations to make that ban permanent. 

At the community level we’ve seen cutters start to promote the virtues of a girl’s education instead of getting cut and getting married early 

Traditional leaders have agreed to stop giving licences for FGM initiations.” 

While this is positive news, there is much more work to do to build the movement and realise a permanent end to FGM in Sierra Leone.  

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Quote open We’ve got a very real opportunity now. The ban introduced during the Ebola crisis is still in place. We want to work with other organisations to make that ban permanent. Quote close

Ramatu Fornah, 
Women’s Action for Human Dignity, Makeni

While this is positive news, there is much more work to do to build the movement and realise a permanent end to FGM in Sierra Leone. 

Sierra Leone is a focal country for a new AmplifyChange project, funded by the Norwegian Government, to strengthen activism and build movements to end FGM.

For more information on the lessons we’ve learned about tackling FGM please see the AmplifyChange learning memo, which can be downloaded from the link below.  

You can also watch our interview  with Sarian Kamara, of Keep the Drums Lose the Knife, an AmplifyChange grantee and activist working to end FGM in Sierra Leone:

Read our FGM learning memo here

Download