KAMAKWIE, Sierra Leone — When Seio Bangura’s final high school exam results arrived not long ago, she learned she had earned grades high enough to get into college. It was a thrilling moment for the daughter of farmers who never finished primary school. But Ms. Bangura is not making plans for university. Instead, she spends most days siting on a bench, watching others head to class or work.
Ms. Bangura, 18, left home almost five years ago, after her parents gave her a choice: to be initiated in a ceremony centered on genital cutting, or leave. The ceremony allows entrance to bondo, or “the society,” a term for the gender-and-ethnicity-based groups that control much of life here.
“My mom said, ‘If you won’t do bondo, you have to go,’” Ms. Bangura said, her voice low but her chin defiantly raised. The choice cut her off from her family’s financial support and left her unable to pay for further education or to marry.
For more than two decades, there has been a push across the developing world to end female genital cutting, a centuries-old ritual tied up in ideas of sexual purity, obedience and control. Today, Sierra Leone is one of only a few countries in sub-Saharan Africa that have not banned it. Cutting is still practiced by almost every ethnic group in every region of the country. But the practice is now at the center of intense debate here.
Progressive groups, many supported by international organizations, are pushing to ban cutting, while conservative forces say it is an essential part of the culture that is practiced across tribal and religious lines.
As that battle plays out in the media and in parliament, growing numbers of girls and young women like Ms. Bangura are taking the matter into their own hands. It is an act of defiance almost unimaginable a generation ago: They are refusing to participate in initiation, telling their mothers and grandmothers they will not join bondo.
More than 90 percent of women over 30 in Sierra Leone have undergone genital cutting, compared with just 61 percent of those ages 15 to 19, according to the most recent household survey on the subject, conducted by UNICEF in 2019. The practice is normally carried out on girls at the onset of puberty, although there are areas of the country where it is done on girls who are much younger.
Refusing bondo comes at great social cost. Women who have not joined are, by custom if not by law, not permitted to marry; to represent their communities in religious or cultural events; to participate in celebrations or funerals; or to serve as chief or in parliament.
In most cases, the initiation involves excision of the clitoris and labia minora with a razor by a senior society member called a sowei, who has no medical training but is believed to be spiritually powerful. The ceremony is carried out in women-only encampments, which were once rural but are now sometimes in towns, known as the “bondo bush.”
Laws against cutting have had uneven enforcement and mixed results. Some countries, such as Egypt and Ethiopia, have seen rates fall dramatically. But in others, such as Senegal and Somalia, the decline has been negligible. Globally, the number of girls at risk of being cut continues to grow, because countries without laws or enforcement against cutting have large and rapidly growing youth populations.
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While Sierra Leone has one of the world’s highest rates of cutting, it is also one of the few places where the practice seems to be showing a sustained decline, as more and more young women resist.
Every morning as she gets ready for school, Isha Kamara and her grandmother, Hawa, debate bondo. Hawa Kamara says it is high time for Ms. Kamara to be initiated. Ms. Kamara, 20, who is in her last year of high school and wants to manage a bank one day, says she’s not interested
All her life, Ms. Kamara, who has lived with her grandmother since she was orphaned as a small child, has heard about the plans for her initiation. But after she read about cutting in a magazine and heard lectures at school — “They told us that anything God put on our bodies belongs there and should stay” — she started saying she would not join the society.
Her grandmother warned she’d have no friends. Ms. Kamara said her friends were also planning to refuse initiation. Her grandmother warned that she would die single and lonely; Ms. Kamara said she expected plenty of people would want to marry a bank manager.
Her grandmother tried bribery and promised new outfits. Ms. Kamara just cocked an eyebrow at that one.
The nagging is most fierce on the days when the sounds of the traditional drums echo through Port Loko for an initiation. Ms. Kamara has offered to do a no-cutting bondo, a practice being promoted by some feminist groups, but her grandmother has said that is worthless.
Only one counterargument has found any resonance: “It’s a lot of money,” Hawa Kamara said, referring to the cost of the ceremony. A family must pay the sowei who leads the rites, and stage a feast or contribute to a community celebration. “I suppose we could spend it on her studies rather than calling people to come for a feast that will be eaten up quickly,” she said.
While big international organizations such as UNICEF and U.N. Women are driving the push to end cutting, the views of many girls and young women are being influenced by homegrown activism. Radio shows, billboards and traveling drama groups have spread the message that cutting is dangerous, can cause serious difficulties for women in childbirth, undermines their sexual health and violates human rights.
Ms. Bangura, who has been living with the family of her friend Aminata since she left her family home, heard the message that cutting was dangerous from her pastor at church and from a teacher at school. Most of her friends were eager to join bondo, she said, but, like her, some were hesitant, and they discussed it quietly among themselves. This is a significant change from years past. Everything about the society is meant to be secret, and breaking the taboo of discussing what happens there, including the initiation rites, is said to bring the risk of a curse.
The problem, Ms. Bangura discovered, is that social change does not happen fast, or neatly.
Kai Samura, who owns the house where Ms. Bangura stays now, said she thought Ms. Bangura’s family was overreacting. “If they abandon her because she refuses, it’s unjust,” she said.
Ms. Samura, 39, underwent initiation at age 8, but has told her own daughters they are free to choose, and should wait until they are 18 to decide. (Her husband is a vehement opponent of the practice, but says the affair is a woman’s domain.)
She reckons she and her husband are less rigid about bondo because they live in a town and social controls are more lax, but she understands the village view:
Getting a daughter initiated is crucial for the family’s social status, and for the girl’s own future.
“People don’t hate their kids,” said Chernor Bah, who runs Purposeful, a feminist advocacy organization in Freetown that works to end cutting. “They are making what they perceive as a rational, best-interest decision for the lives of their children.”
A proposed amendment to the Child Right Act, which has been under review by Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Gender and Children Affairs, would codify cutting as a “harmful practice” and make it illegal to perform the procedure on girls under 18. This is far less than the outright ban than many opponents want. But the path to outlawing the procedure is not a clear one. Powerful individuals and institutions continue to champion the practice — some overtly, some discreetly — on the grounds that it is a key part of Sierra Leone’s culture and values. They often bolster the claim with the assertion that the anti-cutting movement is a Western import, an attempt to erode traditional values and a push to promiscuity.
Sierra Leone’s first lady, Fatima Bio, a powerful political figure with a public profile as high as her husband’s, has said publicly that she underwent cutting and that she has seen no evidence that it is harmful, but when confronted by activists she agreed to give the issue further study.
Sierra Leone’s education minister, David Moinina Sengeh, said in an interview that he was “not aware” if education about cutting was part of the national curriculum and that he did not feel the subject should be addressed in schools.
“I don’t control what people do at home,” he said.
His position is emblematic of the contested ground of cutting. Mr. Moinina Sengeh, who holds a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is known as one of the most progressive figures in Sierra Leone’s government. He is credited with ending a ban on pregnant girls attending school. On cutting, however, he will not take a position. The curriculum should not “be making a moral decision on whether something is good or right” and should not say, “Get cut or don’t get cut,” he said.
Politicians seeking votes often volunteer to pay for a mass initiation in a community — even politicians who have publicly opposed cutting, said Naasu Fofanah, a prominent Freetown entrepreneur and deputy chair of the progressive Unity Party. She said that several years ago, when she was advising a former president, Ernest Bai Koroma, on the issue, she successfully convinced most soweileaders to endorse a ban on cutting children, which, she said, would have been a major step forward. But activists seeking a full ban blocked the move, she said.
Ms. Fofanah herself underwent the cutting at age 15 and remembers the pain and shock of the actual procedure (about which she had no forewarning). But she also said it was, overall, a positive and affirming ritual.
“It was a beautiful experience for me,” she said, recalling her grandmother leading dancers in celebration of her transition into womanhood, and being told “that nobody’s ever going to speak down to you. You’ve now become this woman.”
It wasn’t hard to reconcile what had been done to her body, because she knew her mother, her grandmother and her aunts had all been through it as well. “So you endure, and you’re just like, ‘OK, that’s done, let’s get on with it,’” she said.
Still, Ms. Fofanah, who studied bondo initiation for her masters thesis at the University of Westminster in England, did not take her own daughters for initiation and talked a niece out of it, telling her she “didn’t need it” because the family had sufficient resources to open other paths for her. Yet, she felt a blanket ban was ill-conceived.
“If we are saying, when it comes to this practice, women cannot express themselves and say, ‘I am 18 or I’m 21 or I’m 30, it’s my culture, I’m going to’ — where do human rights meet my rights as a woman?” she said. “Are you saying I’m not capable of making an informed decision, of saying I want to go through this practice?”
UNICEF surveys have found that the proportion of women who think that cutting should stop is rising steadily; in the most recent survey it was nearly a third, and the opinion was held across education levels. But even women who said they thought cutting should end often also said they would send their own daughters to bondo; the top reason they gave was “social acceptance.” In a third of couples, women wanted the practice to continue while their husbands said it should be ended.
When Sierra Leone experienced an epidemic of Ebola virus from 2014 to 2016, the government temporarily outlawed the practice, and traditional and faith leaders helped promote the ban. It has since ended, but activists said it made a space for a public conversation about bondo that had never existed before, and likely contributed to a rise in young women resisting.
A number of anti-cutting groups in Sierra Leone have been trying to build support for an alternative process, what they call a “bloodless rite,” that preserves the instruction about the role and responsibility of women but does not include cutting. This approach also has the advantage of preserving an income stream, and social power, for soweis.
Kadiatu Bangura inherited the role of soweiand estimated that she cut more than 100 girls in the town of Port Loko before her daughter Zeinab, who is now 22, asked her to quit. Zeinab heard anti-cutting messages at church and confronted her mother, shocked that this was the core of the role her mother was esteemed for holding.
Kadiatu Bangura said she tried to help her daughter see the whole picture: “The bad side is the cutting — but the good side is there is dancing and celebrating and they drum for you and when you lead, they follow.” There was community and a sense of shared values in the society, and the rites without cutting did not have the same power, she said.
Nankali Maksud, who leads work on the subject for UNICEF globally, said that the public conversation about cutting in Sierra Leone, and in other countries where the practice has prominent proponents, had evolved. “As people get more educated they are challenging the blanket ‘F.GM. is bad’ messaging,” she said, using an acronym, often used by opponents of the procedure, for female genital mutilation. “UNICEF has had to regroup. We’re now having to be much more clear: We mean in children. We don’t mean in women. Women should have a right to be able to do what they want to do with their bodies.”
In other countries where cutting is practiced in some communities but not in others, girls can find it easier to leave home, she said. In Kenya, for example, there are shelters and organizations that support girls who resist cutting. Sierra Leone, where the hegemony of bondo is still entrenched, has nothing of the sort.
That leaves young women who resist the ritual, such as Seio Bangura, reliant on charity when they find it. Some turn to commercial sex work as one of the few ways a woman on her own can earn a living. Ms. Bangura sometimes sells nuts and cakes in the market, trying to save enough from the dollar or two she earns every week to pay for college. She goes to church. Mostly, she sits, waiting for Sierra Leone to catch up to her.