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Ebola fears bring female genital mutilation to near halt in Sierra Leone

Activists hope to capitalize on lull to end FGM permanently, but some locals want to see tradition continue

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone — Female genital mutilation appears to be on a drastic decline in Sierra Leone as a result of the Ebola crisis, according to rights groups and those who carry out the mutilation — a turn of events that those against the practice see as a silver lining of the epidemic. Until recently, it was estimated that about 80 percent of girls in the country were mutilated.

The practice, which involves removing parts of or the entire external genitalia, has stopped out of fear that the women who perform female genital mutilation (FGM), called soweis, will contract or transmit the deadly virus. It’s unclear if any soweis have contracted or died from Ebola.

FGM is practiced primarily in 29 African and Middle Eastern countries and, as in Sierra Leone, often defended as a cultural tradition. FGM proponents believe it will prevent girls from having sex before marriage and make them more attractive to a future husband. It is also seen as a rite of passage into womanhood

The procedure can cause serious health complications, including severe bleeding, problems urinating, cysts, infections, problems in childbirth and death. In 2012 the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution calling for the elimination of FGM worldwide.

Dhuwarakha Sriram, a child protection specialist for UNICEF, said she would be surprised if the practice had stopped completely, but it appears to have been drastically reduced.

Activists against FGM are trying to capitalize on the current lull to end the practice permanently. Dr. Brima Kargbo, chief medical officer at Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Health, said the it is conducting outreach campaigns to educate traditional healers and soweis on the dangers of performing FGM during the Ebola crisis. To stem transmission of the virus, in early November the government imposed a fine of 500,000 leones, or about $115, for performing FGM, but there is no law in Sierra Leone against FGM itself.

“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,” said Owolabi Bjälkander, a UNICEF consultant in Sierra Leone.

Some in Sierra Leone, however, don’t want to see an end to FGM.

One former sowei now working as a housekeeper in the capital, Freetown, said she thinks the tradition should continue. Speaking on condition of anonymity, she said that before Ebola hit, she still participated in the initiations and contributed by cooking the food and making clothing for the girls being initiated.

“When a girl is initiated, it’s a good time for us,” she said. “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.”

The president of the National Council of Soweis in Sierra Leone, Mammy Koloneh, said she would prefer to keep the tradition going as well. She said FGM has been part of Sierra Leones culture for generations and it would be wrong to stop.

She added that the loss of business has affected all of the approximately 2,000 soweis across the country. “Nobody is considering us, to help us, to give us rice or anything, since this Ebola started,” she said.

Sierra Leone has been devastated by the virus, with 400 to 500 new cases every week. As of Friday, there have been at least 5,987 deaths and 16,899 cases in eight countries, according to the World Health Organization. Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia have seen the worst of the crisis.

The virus is spread by direct contact with bodily fluids from an infected symptomatic person. There have been widespread public campaigns to discourage people from traditional practices like washing and touching the dead as they are prepared for burial.

Likewise, performing FGM on a girl infected with Ebola could easily spread the virus to a sowei. If knives aren’t properly washed, they could spread Ebola from girl to girl.

There are conflicting reports on whether any soweis have died from Ebola. Ann-Marie Caulker, the founder of an organization aimed at ending FGM, said that at least nine soweis have died from Ebola, but Koloneh denied that any have died. Both said the practice has come to a near halt. Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Health and Sanitation did not have statistics on whether the practice has stopped or if any soweis have died.

Caulker was mutilated when she was 6 years old. She said her stepmothers pinned her down. “They sliced me three times. I kept crying, ‘I’m going to die.’ It is like they wanted to kill me,” she said. “For years I also had nightmares about that experience. The whole thing was done without my consent.”

The women who carry out FGM initiations are part of a secret group called the Bondo in Sierra Leone, which has powerful social and even political influence.

In 2010, according to UNICEF, 88.6 percent of women in Sierra Leone had been mutilated. The percentage was reduced by 7.8 percentage points before the Ebola crisis because of increased resistance to the practice. And in 2011, several communities in Sierra Leone, including Freetown, signed a memorandum of understanding that FGM would not be performed on those under the age of 18.

In 2007, Caulker founded the National Movement for Emancipation and Progress (NAMEP). The group opened a school for girls, who can attend for free as long as they aren’t mutilated, providing an incentive for families to protect their children from FGM.

She is using the current slowdown to further encourage soweis to end the practice for good. For several years now, NAMEP has offered life skills programs to help soweis find a different way to survive other than FGM. 

“They learn skills like tailoring, hairdressing,” said Caulker. “And in the process, we talk to them about dangers of FGM and importance of education for women.”

Musu Sankoh, 35, is in the program. She had been working as a sowei for 15 years, after her mother passed the tradition on to her. She has been mutilated and does not want other girls to go through the experience.

“It was not my intention to cut people,” she said. “But I had to support my family.”

Soweis earn about 250,000 leones (about $60) per girl. Sankoh said she can now make about the same amount per month with sewing skills she learned through NAMEP.

Caulker said she has received many death threats from those who want to keep the tradition. Despite this, she won’t give up.

“I know I will leave a legacy. I will change this. I will keep pushing and pushing it.”

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