Sierra Leone respects the right of consenting adults to choose – says minister Blyden

Sierra Leone Telegraph: 11 July 2016

President Koroma welcomes Sylvia Blyden

Since her appointment as minister of social welfare, gender and children’s affairs early this year, there have been immense debate and speculation as to how Dr Sylvia Blyden would handle the controversial issue of female circumcision.

Would she be swayed by the vociferous campaign led by western governments and their international agencies calling for the outright banning of female circumcision in Africa; or would she stand by her usual, dogged single-mindedness that drives her politics, which she consistently and broadly describe as libertarianism and the championing of women’s rights?

The issue of female circumcision is arguably one of the most polarised and poisonous debates taking place in Africa today. It has divided families, communities and religious faiths.

In Sierra Leone, it is unclear where president Koroma stands on the issue. But his former social welfare minister was clear about his position on the matter. “Sierra Leone will not ban female circumcision,” he said.

So where does the current social welfare minister – Dr Blyden stand on female circumcision?

Speaking last week to a large gathering of international development agencies, NGOs and dignitaries, attending the biennial general meeting of the women’s rights campaigning 50/50 Group, held at the British Council Hall in Freetown, she could not have been clearer. This is what she said:

Dr Sylvia O Blyden2“Madam Chairperson, ladies and gentlemen, before I end this address, I want to highlight and focus attention on the issue of what is widely considered as a harmful traditional practice and this is what we now reference by the acronym of FGM (Female Genital Mutilation).

I am going to speak on it both from the point of the trained and fully qualified medical doctor that I am, as well as from the point of a female Gender Activist.

 FGM evokes mixed feelings because of the very obvious medical repercussions that can result from it including Vesico-Vaginal Fistula which can leave a woman so affected that she has to live a life of grave misery.

Such fistulas can be a result of scarring around the genital area which complicates childbirth and damages the wall between the vagina and anal cavity. The scarring in many cases have been linked to be as a result of badly performed FGM.

For such reasons, many people frown upon FGM especially as FGM can be forcefully undertaken on young girls creating huge psychological trauma they suffer for the rest of their lives.

 It is because of such reasons that the United Nations urges all States to work towards ending such forceful mutilations and initiations.

Bondo3Here in Sierra Leone, although there is currently no law that explicitly prohibits the practice, the government of His Excellency President Koroma remains committed and is encouraging awareness raising and advocacy around the issue.

In addition, laws that prohibit cruelty and torture, especially against the girl child, can be applied to those who forcefully subject Sierra Leonean females to cutting of their anatomical parts.

I repeat, under this government, the laid down laws and statutory provisions which prohibit cruelty and torture, especially against the girl child, are going to be applied to those who think they can forcefully subject Sierra Leonean females to traumatic cutting of their anatomical parts.

 Within the Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment pillar of the Agenda for Prosperity (Pillar 8), there is a strong commitment to enact a law that criminalize forceful initiation which by definition will include children under the age of 18 years who cannot be considered as legally able to make such decisions involving optional plastic surgery to their anatomy.

Additionally, a National Strategy for the Reduction of FGM/C (2016-2020) is being developed.

However, and this is very important, the aspect of total banning of the practice is something that we have to critically reconsider as against the right of an adult woman to elect to undertake surgical exercise on her genitals.

In Western countries, their women choose to willingly undergo cutting and re-shaping of their genital parts and no-one prohibits them from undertaking what are known in medical terms as LABIAPLASTY or CLITORIDOTOMY.

These two are surgical procedures that cut the labia and cut or re-shape the clitoris of women. In other words, mutilation of their genitals.

Therefore, the insistence from some quarters for an “elimination” of what they term as “female genital mutilation” is, I daresay, an exhibition of tunnel vision.

Those proponents have to start thinking outside the box. If an adult Sierra Leone woman opts to follow the traditions of her female ancestors and willingly elects to have her genitals cut or re-sized, I will respect her right to do what she wants to do with her body.

When you can get the United States of America, Great Britain and other Western countries to ban or eliminate labiaplasty and clitoridotomy (i.e: mutilation of their genitals) amongst adult women in those Western countries, then you can come to Sierra Leone and get us to ban such among our adult women who seek to have such.

Minister of childrens affairs - Dr Sylvia BlydenHaving said that, let me reiterate the position of the Government of Sierra Leone, that based upon the Memorandum of Understanding that has been signed by Traditional Leaders and FGM practitioners to stop under age initiations and female genital mutilations, this government will heavily clamp down on any Sowei or Practitioner who forces a girl child under the age of 18 years to undergo cutting of her anatomical parts against her will.

Already, I have held series of meetings with the leadership of the National Sowei Council and they have assured me that no child will be initiated.

Recently, a series of reports of forceful initiation of girl children in certain parts of the country, had no less entities than the National Sowei Council take the lead in supporting the law enforcement agencies to undertake investigations into the matter.

I continue to remain very proud of our Soweis, Digbas and Bondo Women of Sierra Leone. And I urge all women to step up to the plate and support Bondo Women, as we all work to protect our female children from various forms of violence.” (End of speech).

Loathe or like her style of politics, many of her supporters and admirers will today argue that based on her decision to stand for civil liberty and women’s right to choose, while at the same time upholding and protecting the right of the child, Dr Sylvia Blyden’s speech is set to shape incoming legislation and government policy on female circumcision.

Sierra Leone is a society deeply rooted in cultural and traditional practices, and it seems the minister has the support of the majority of people in the country.

5 Comments

  1. SOCIAL INSTITUTIONS & GENDER INDEX (SIGI)

    Sierra Leone SIGI Category 2014: Very High

    The Constitution of Sierra Leone is currently under review and a new version of the Constitution is expected to be adopted by referendum after a nationwide awareness-raising and consultation process, plus peer review and drafting by experts, in 2015[1].

    According to the Ministry for Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs, the Maputo Protocol to the African Charter is due to be adopted, likely with reservations in relation to the banning of female genital mutilation[2].

    The Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Policy is currently being drafted. This will precede the adoption of the Gender Equality Bill.

    At present, despite legislative changes that have increased women’s legal protection, women continue to experience discriminatory practices. Their rights and position are largely contingent on customary law and the ethnic group to which they belong. In addition, secret (bondo or sande) societies to which most girls and women belong, serve to uphold and reinforce harmful practices such as female genital mutilation (FGM) and early marriage.

    The current Constitution of Sierra Leone (1991, amended 2001) provides for equal rights for men and women in Article 27, but the principle of non-discrimination does not apply in all areas.[3] Sierra Leone ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women in 1988, but has not yet ratified the Optional Protocol on violence against women.[4] In 2007 Sierra Leone passed a set of “gender laws”: the Domestic Violence Act, the Registration of Customary Marriage and Divorce Act, and the Devolution of Estates Act. A Child Rights Act was also enacted in 2007. These laws were followed in 2012 by the enactment of the Sexual Offences Act.

    [1]Constitutional Review Committee (2014) [2]Awareness Times (2014) [3] CEDAW (2012) p.10 [4] United Nations Treaty Collection (n.d.)

  2. Zeinab,

    Argue and say all what you want, but, by Law a girl child is her father’s property not the mother’s.

    In addition, when you say that:

    “Circumcision is intended ‘to reduce sexual temptation and keep girls and women from temptations.’

    If a girl is expected to endure adolescence without the cut, she could fall into bad habits, get pregnant, become a prostitute or in some other way damage her reputation and marriage prospects.”

    Wow! To be honest with you, I find these statements of yours as hollow, ridiculous and very shabby. If you truly believe this, then why is there adultery committed among the adults circumcised people? Please let me know.

  3. While I understand the logic of allowing adult women to undergo Bondo circumcision while preventing mothers from arranging the cut for their daughters, I cannot agree with it. Circumcision is intended to reduce sexual temptation and keep girls and women from temptations.

    If a girl is expected to endure adolescence without the cut, she could fall into bad habits, get pregnant, become a prostitute or in some other way damage her reputation and marriage prospects.

    Parents are entrusted to make many decisions for their children, and the choice to circumcise their daughters is a vital one. The government should trust mothers, not undermine them.

  4. TO ALL MEMBERS OF PARLIAMENT OF SIERRA LEONE

    Dear Parliamentarians,

    Re: FREE THE GIRL CHILD AND WOMAN OF SIERRA LEONE FROM BONDO GENITAL MUTILATION

    Background Information

    We the people of the Republic of Sierra Leone, herein called Sierra Leoneans, with a population of 7,075,641 have tolerated and lived a life of animism with Bondo traditional and cultural practices for many generations far too long in the country.

    There have been many serious cases of regrettable and excruciating pains incurred due to female genital cutting. Thus, the reason why it is described as mutilation- the “infliction of serious damage” on the clitoris and its hood.

    In some cultures, including Mendes, the forceful and deceptive consumption of the entire cut-out clitoris by the initiate herself is tantamount to cannibalism- eating the flesh or internal organs of human beings. That is nasty and heinous!

    In addition, and as a matter of fact, the annual death toll meted on its female victims from this crude and barbaric genital operation is harrowing and beyond belief. The number of affected individuals is innumerable with tears still flowing freely from their very eyes and hearts.

    Opponents of the Bondo practices are often being deliberately marginalized and called different names as either a dirty person or unclean people.

    But, Bondo female genital cutting itself is an underworld practice from a maritime spirit with a hardened heart.

    While it is alleged that Bondo initiation is a central element in rites of passage into adulthood, yet it exposes girls and women to “serious medical risks,” including but not limited to the following:

    “acute pain due to lack of local anaesthesia; post operative haemorrhage; urinary infection; pelvic infection; septicaemia and tetanus due to the use of unsterilized equipment; dysmenorrhoea due to the growth of keloid scars that obstruct the vaginal orifice; painful intercourse due to scarring and infection; prolonged and obstructed childbirth due to unyielding scars; post-partum haemorrhage due to tearing of scar tissue or the uterine cervix.”

    See “SIERRA LEONE: THE INFLUENCE OF THE SECRET SOCIETIES, WITH SPECIAL REFERENCE TO FEMALE GENITAL MUTILATION.” August 2007. By Dr. Richard Fanthorpe.

    Consequently, it is against this background that you the parliamentarians of Sierra Leone must now step up to the plate, immediately criminalize Bondo traditional practices and activities as follows on an approved upon bill of legislation:

    1. Ban or outlaw all the Bondo traditional and cultural practices as illegal

    2. Prosecute and fine the culprits up to maximum Le 2 million, or do 3 years of imprisonment, or both

    3. Dispose of and burn all Bondo masked devil attires and regalia

    4. Proponents and supporters of female genital cutting should immediately desist from the practice or else
    face criminal penalties and charges as appropriate

    5. The Sierra Leone Police (SLP) should be mandated to arrest any Sowei, detain and charge to court for
    violating this Law

    Yours Faithfully,

    A Concerned Citizen.

  5. Like a coin, there are always two sides to every story, including life and death, truth and lie, faith and fake, heaven and hell, etc. The more reason why Prophet Moses had to say the following and asked his hearers to choose life with all their heart:

    “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” Deuteronomy 30:19,20 (NIV).

    I am providing you with some recent 21st century reliable information below, arranged in a chronological order, to take a look at carefully, and judge for yourself whether or not Bondo is a good traditional and cultural practice on the girl child and woman for that matter.

    1. Two Bondo initiates die at Sowei’s hands: by Emma Black on April 19, 2012.

    “Out of twenty five initiated in a Bondo society, it is revealed that two cousins Fatmata Sesay age 15 and Marie Sesay age 16 have died in the process on April 5 this year.

    Police sources say Mammie Karimu, the Sowei, was interviewed and part of what she told them was that the mother of the two deceased girls, Yabu, appeared and disturbed the process in the shrine. She said the girls were terrified and that’s how she was landed in trouble.

    The Sowei said after the initiation, the girls were complaining of pains in their genital organs and the mother of the girls screamed for the nurse to help but could not save the situation.

    According to Dr. Owizz Koroma the two children died of tetanus. Meanwhile the Sowei woman is helping the police with their investigation.

    Stay with Sierra Express Media, for your trusted place in news!”

    2. Pastor survives death threat from Bondo Society Women by Mariatu Sesay on August 20, 2012.

    “Pastor Emmanuel Tommy Kowa of Household of Faith Christian Fellowship Church, Talia Yobeco Village, Bonthe District, South Province, Sierra Leone on 12th November, 2011 at around 2:00 a.m. was at his church praying when the Secret Society Women (Bondo Society) together with a gang of male youths surrounded the church compound and threatened to kill him.

    Pastor Kowa said it was only through the grace of God and our savior Jesus Christ I was able to escape through a window. As Pastor Kowa made his escape, the whole church building and his house were set alight and burnt to the ground. Fortunately the pastor’s wife was not in the house at the time as she had travelled to the next village.

    Pastor Kowa stated that the reason behind the whole threat was that he strongly preaches and stands against the evil practice of their so-called Bondo Society.

    Pastor Kowa’s cousin, Christiana Kowa, died on the 15th March, 2011 after being initiated by the Bondo Society women.

    In the Pastor’s village, some victims of initiation have given up their life to Christ, after testifying to the church about the evil practice of the Bondo Society.

    According to some surviving victims who suffered initiation by the Bondo Society and who later joined the Church, the practice is very harmful to the life of the girl child because during their initiation the Bondo Society.

    Women use unspecialized, unsanitary and harmful instruments to cut the clitoris of the girl child which in many instances leads to serious bleeding, and in the worse case, death.

    According to Pastor Kowa 55% of the people in Talia Yobeco Village are non-religious and believe in the evil practice: 25% are Muslim, and 20% are Christian. He stated that the health and lives of many female children in the village are at risk, hence he feels the need to preach against the evil practice of female genital mutilation by secret societies such as the Bondo Society.”

    3. Sowei trial to be done in Freetown by Awareness Times News Briefs on May 30, 2014

    “The Sowei Koloneh and others who were arrested recently in Kono have been charged for the murder of a nine year-old school girl who met her untimely death by bleeding from her genitals after being initiated in a ‘bondo bush,’ at Gbongama town in Nimikoro. AIG Elizabeth Turay Director of Gender Affairs of the SLP, informed a local tabloid that the family support unit has been dealing with the matter but has now handed over to the Criminal Investigation Department in Freetown to continue the investigation. The suspect including Koloneh, the initiator, the grandmother of the deceased, a class mate of the deceased and others who helped in the initiation process will all be tried in Freetown.”

    4. Sierra Leone – 9 year old dies during FGM- does it ring a bell? By Mkandeh on 03 June, 2014.

    “It was with sombre dismay I learnt of the death of a 9 year old girl allegedly during a Female Genital Mutilation process on 17 May this year, in a village called Bongama in Eastern Sierra Leone. Without any shock of the location because that part of the country is known to be very intransigent when it comes to stopping the harmful traditional practice like FGM.

    The death of the little angel also forced me to ask all those politicians and other senior people in society whom either have been paying lip service to the issue of FGM or trivialising its effects, whether this death rings a bell.
    Are we being just to humanity? What if this little girl was ourselves, our daughters, nieces, cousins, aunties? A future has been halted, a life ended carelessly. Who knows whether this girl was going to grow up and be somebody who was going to make a very meaningful contribution to our society.
    Yet our action or inaction have impeded her contribution to changing the future of Sierra Leone, Africa and the world. Does this thought ever reign in our minds? Does it haunt us? Well, if it has not I think its high time we started thinking from this angle.

    The UN country team in a statement called on the government to conduct a prompt, thorough and independent investigation into the girl’s death and to bring those responsible to justice. While it welcomed steps taken by the government to investigate the case, noting that an individual has been taken into police custody…”

    5. Sierra Leone’s secret FGM societies spread silent fear and sleepless nights on August 24, 2015.

    “When 16-year-old Mariatu* goes to bed at night she is scared of going to sleep. She fears members of powerful, all-female secret societies are going to break into her room with the consent of her parents and kidnap her.

    Mariatu has good reason to be afraid. She has already fled her village in northern Sierra Leone to avoid female genital mutilation (FGM) and expects to go on the run again to avoid being cut.

    ‘I am not safe in this house. I’m not safe in this community,’ she said. ‘I am afraid, when I lie down to sleep, that one day they will grab me, tie me up and take me to that place.’ She is referring to the ‘Bondo’ bush, an area of secluded forest where FGM takes place.”

    See the 9-minute video clip on “Sierra Leone’s secret FGM societies spread silent fear and sleepless nights” and hear Mariatu herself speaking against Bondo.

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