Fuambai Sia Ahmadu – Co-founder of All Women Are Free to Choose (AWAFC Inc.)
Sierra Leone Telegraph: 2 September 2016
All Women are Free to Choose (AWAFC), which is an international advocacy movement on behalf of the majority of circumcised women who support the practice, including Bondo and Sande, is categorically opposed to any under 18 legal ban against what opponents call Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Sierra Leone. (Photo: Fuambai Sia Ahmadu).
Further, we reject the official use of the terminology FGM in reference to what we call female circumcision.
Bondo is not FGM. The government of Sierra Leone’s over 18 policy on female circumcision must be respected.
According to the Minister of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs, the current Government policy supports the self-regulation of Soweis and the existing MOU’s, which prohibit the circumcision of girls under the age of 18.
This policy is the best way forward for the majority of affected women and girls in Sierra Leone.
According to Lawyer Mariama Dumbuya, so-called FGM should be legally banned for girls under the age of 18 because:
1. The practice will end – adult women would not want to be subjected to so-called FGM. This is factually incorrect. I was 21 years old at the time I joined Bondo. I know many Sierra Leonean women who were 18 and over when they willingly joined Bondo. In previous times, young women were well into late adolescence (16 and above) when they were considered to be “ready” to join Bondo.
The now infamous young woman Fatmata Turay did not die from circumcision; she was 19 years old and excited to finally join Bondo. Further, we are seeing that more and more adult women in countries like the UK and the US are choosing the very same female genital cosmetic operations that are performed in Bondo.
We firmly believe that Bondo and Sande will be strengthened with a true return to our traditions – including waiting until girls are young women and can give their willing consent to join.
2. So-called FGM reduces sexual desire. This is factually incorrect and there are plenty of studies to show this. Also, those of us who were sexually active before and after joining Bondo can personally attest that this is a complete myth. Islam may be concerned with the control of female sexuality (as with other Abrahamic religions such as Judaism and Christianity) but female circumcision predates Islam.
There are some Muslims who believe that Islam requires the circumcision of both boys and girls. There are some who say boys’ circumcision is required but circumcision of girls is only recommended. Yet still there are other Muslims who say female circumcision is not required or is banned under Islam.
Either way, close to half of the country’s women practitioners are Christians and many others do not adhere to either Islam or Christianity. The majority of affected women in Sierra Leone uphold female circumcision because of women’s ancestral traditions – Bondo and Sande – not because of religion.
What is clear is that Sierra Leone is home to ethnic groups with the most sexually open and permissive cultures with respect to women. Let us own this truth.
3. A girl has a right to her clitoris – she may want it later in life. The public needs to be educated that a girl’s clitoris cannot be removed; this is anti-FGM propaganda. The bulk of the clitoris is beneath the skin and invisible.
What is visible for most uncircumcised girls and women is the foreskin and external glans, which is a tiny fraction of the entire clitoris. Female circumcision as practiced by our Soweis involves excising this visible foreskin and glans tissue, which does not impair sexual sensation and capacity for orgasms.
Women can continue to enjoy sexual intercourse, oral sex, manual stimulation or any form of sexual play they desire or imagine. Let’s stop the ridiculous FGM propaganda that tells circumcised girls and women that they are sexually mutilated or damaged.
So, what happens if a girl wants to restore her excess foreskin and glans tissue later in life? The same question could be asked for boys. Or are boys not entitled to their excess flesh and tissue?
There are very vocal and powerful anti-male circumcision or male mutilation activists who say the same thing anti-FGM activists are saying – that they were held down and mutilated in excruciating pain, their foreskins were removed to diminish their sexual desire and feeling, they never gave their consent to have their genitals chopped, etc. etc.
Yet, western feminists are not mobilizing the world to impose legal bans against neonatal or childhood male circumcision.
4. Male circumcision is okay because it promotes hygiene. Well, certainly that is what supporters say. Try telling the majority of European or other uncircumcised men throughout the world that their genitals are unclean or dirty or are a haven for bacteria.
Supporters of female circumcision say the same thing about hygiene. The clitoral foreskin, like the male foreskin, contains bacteria and smegma that requires daily cleaning. Poor hygiene can lead to painful adhesions as well as itchiness and offensive odor.
The HPV virus can also be found in the external clitoral foreskin – for those men who enjoy oral sex, this can lead to deadly oral cancers. The treatment for painful adhesions in western countries is excision of the visible clitoral glans – the same operation our Soweis perform in Bondo and Sande as preventive measures.
5. Unclear benefits for women. Lawyer Dumbuya is unclear about the benefits of female circumcision for women. Well, since she has asked that we speak publicly about our personal views and preferences, and since I am already on record that I was uncircumcised until age 21 – I can say that I don’t see the greater benefit of excess, uneven and unflattering skin and tissue.
But, I’m not the only one that feels this way. And Bondo/Sande women are not the only ones who feel this way. I would ask our eminent laywer and the general public to do some basic google searches on “female genital cosmetic surgeries.”
Peruse the before and after pictures…carefully. Read what white, affluent, educated western women who are prepared to pay thousands of US dollars and British pound sterling are saying about the benefit of identical operations performed by our Soweis in Bondo and Sande.
My favorite quote, “I feel cleaner, sexier, more sculpted!” Look again at the before pictures of some of these women who have undergone “labiaplasty” or “clitoroplasty” or “clitoroplexy.”
I ask our learned lawyer and the general public to observe the gross disfigurement of most cases and read about the sexual dysfunction it causes uncircumcised women who go in for treatment. These deformities and disfigurement are what our Soweis mean when they talk about “gboroka”.
So, if circumcised women are asked to undress and show the world our benefits, we also insist that uncircumcised women undress and show us their benefits.
6. Marking or cutting negatively impacts women when socializing with other nationalities. Putting aside the bizarre comparison with Nigerian facial scarification, Lawyer Dumbuya seems to suggest that circumcised women must change their practices to fit in with uncircumcised women. Really?
There was a time when we lived peacefully side by side (even if we whispered behind each other’s backs). Bondo and Sande was not the business of non-members and there was a mutual “live and let live.”
That is, until someone decided to invite anti-FGM campaigns into Sierra Leone. That is, until someone decided it was time to implement legislation to ban so-called FGM.
I recently stated in a social media forum that it is not Bondo that has mounted a national “gboroka” campaign to forcefully circumcise women who do not hold the same ideology, yet opponents have decided on a national FGM campaign to pressure Government to enact legislation that suits someone else’s “natural vagina” agenda?
All nationalities can get along by respecting each other’s rights to privacy, dignity and self-determination.
The fact is when we put aside anti-FGM propaganda from UN agencies and activist organizations like US based Equality Now, Forward UK or our locally based Amazonian Initiative, we can see clearly the lack of medical or health evidence in anti-FGM campaigns.
There is no evidence base for the notion that circumcised women are at greater risk than uncircumcised women, with respect to long-term obstetrical and gynecological health and there is no evidence that circumcised women are sexually impaired as compared with uncircumcised women.
Further, the majority of circumcised women are not “mutilated” in the same way that the majority of uncircumcised women are not “gborokas” or disfigured by adhesions or clitoral and labia hypertrophy.
So, unless uncircumcised women or anti-FGM advocates can bring us the medical evidence or scientific research with proper controls, I say we “live and let live.”
The Way Forward:
1. First and foremost, Government needs to get rid of the official use of the term FGM. If there is no official use of the term “gboroka” or other derogatory terminology that is used by lay people to describe uncircumcised women, Government should not use language that offends the majority of women in this country.
2. We must recognise the different types of female circumcision and base our national policies accordingly. (Photo: Sia Ahmadu).
WHO Type I (removal of foreskin only) is anatomically equivalent to male circumcision and, like male circumcision, should not require consent. The Sierra Leone Constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex and gender, so we insist on gender parity with respect to parallel types of genital surgeries on children as well as with regards to parental autonomy.
WHO Type II involves removal of foreskin or exposed glans as well as trimming of inner labia, procedures that are aesthetically and anatomically equivalent to common forms of female genital cosmetic surgeries. I agree with our good lawyer here that, like all cosmetic surgeries, this should require consent.
3. The most common type of female circumcision practiced in Bondo is Type II and in some cases Type I. Sierra Leone does not practice the most extreme form of stitching the vagina or Type III so this is not relevant in our local context. As mentioned above, the Soweis have already agreed to self-regulate and limit the practice to girls 18 and above. This is a huge step forward.
4. Government should continue bolstering the efforts of the current Minister of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs in her collaboration with the Sowei Council and grassroots women all over the country.
Honorable Dr. Sylvia Blyden has made the position of Government clear, that it has signed MOU’s with Soweis to end the circumcision of girls under 18. Honorable Dr. Blyden is building on the work of the former Gender Advisor, Naasu Fofanah, who was instrumental in coordinating the Sowei Council.
These women need the full support of Government and the people of Sierra Leone to begin to fully advance the spirit and terms of the MOUs nationwide and to standardize procedures and protocols among Soweis.
Further, Government needs to support literacy expansion, further education and clinical training of Soweis to ensure that all consenting adult women have access to the highest standard of healthcare in the country.
5. The Sowei Council and other pro-Bondo and Sande women need support in bringing the “tradition” and cultural “training” back to female circumcision. Just as our good lawyer observed, there is so much learning, vibrancy, and rich cultural knowledge behind the great masquerades and within the seclusion bush.
For those anti-FGM activists who want to see an end to female circumcision as an entry requirement for Bondo, there is nothing stopping them from organizing their own initiation-without-cutting ceremonies.
They should focus their energies and substantial foreign aid resources on convincing the next generation of girls that, being uncircumcised is a better deal for them and that Bondo training can be achieved without the operation.
6. Criminalizing female circumcision would continue the unjustified stigmatization of affected girls and women. Criminalization would justify the relentless public disparagement, harassment and persecution of our sisters, mothers, aunts, grandmothers and so on for a practice that is becoming popularized in the very western countries seeking to ban it in ours.
Criminalizing female circumcision for under 18 girls with no parallel ban on under 18 male circumcision would send the wrong message that our daughters are not equal to our sons, that there is something inherently bad or wrong with a practice that is performed for the same reasons as male circumcision in Sierra Leone.
Instead of the traditional equality and gender balance that sustains Bondo and Poro, an under 18 legal ban on female circumcision only would be discriminatory.
7. Finally, just as Poro is not under Government regulation and authority, Bondo is not subject to policing by the State. Criminalizing female circumcision to enforce an 18 and over code of honor, would set a very dangerous precedent and invite civil upheaval at a time when Sierra Leone needs to focus on our internal stability.
Leave our Soweis alone – they will self-regulate as they have for hundreds if not thousands of years. And besides, we have a resilient vanguard of smart, savvy, well-heeled, cosmopolitan and empowered Bondo women to guide them along the 21st Century.
Author: Fuambai Sia Ahmadu is the co-founder of ‘All Women Are Free to Choose (AWAFC Inc.)’.