Sierra Leone: Bondo secret society heats up Anti-FGM campaign

Katanya Women’s Development Association (KAWDA) one of the leading advocates against Female Genital Mutilation in Sierra Leone has intensified its campaign against the ancient practice, despite stiff resistance from the Bondo secret society.

Bondo is a powerful, women-only secret society that prepares young girls for adult life, marriage and motherhood. They have so much influence in Sierra Leone, that not even politician dare to confront the powerful women on FGM.

Ann-Marie Caulker, the Executive Director of KAWDA said newly, that she is not against people in the Bondo Secret Society, but the crude way FGM is being practiced, and the resultant effects is a reason for concern.

She told, that many children have lost their lives during FGM ceremonies. The practice has been part of Sierra Leonean culture since the pre-colonial era. However, not everything is bad about the society. Then women are also taught positive things during the initiation ceremonies. They learn about herbalism, Motherhood and about the role of women in the society, how to become good house wives, and other good virtues that they will need later on in adult life, in order to become good wives, mothers and citizens.

But the FGM practice which leads to harmful effects, has aroused concern over the past decades both locally and across the international scene. The practice is common in all the regions of Sierra Leone; even in the capital, Freetown.

In Njala, in the Moyamba district, not long ago, some girls were brought against their will to the initiation ceremony, and one of them had to go to hospital. Another girl escaped and has not been seen since. The leader of the Bondo secret society warned that the girl had already become privy to the secrets of the society which is not open to non-initiates, and therefore her escape would bring evil on the town and the society. She threatened to search for her by all means and pointed out that wherever the girl intents to hide there are Bondo Secret society members, so that her escape has no prospect of succeeding.

A new law has been implemented in Sierra Leone, forbidding girls under 18 years old to take part in the initiation ceremonies. This means that girls have to reach the age where they can decide freely, whether they wish to be “initiated” or not. But the Anti-FGM campaigners argue, that even eighteen year old girls can die on the consequences of FGM, especially because of the crude methods. They pointed out that in many rural areas there are no medical facilities and that most of the time, the blades that are used are rusty and contagious. Victims of FGM have reported on the painful ordeals they have been going through during this procedure.

Campaigners are reporting, that successive governments have been reticent over the issue because of political reasons. Either because they fear resistance from the members of the Bondo society, or they don’t wish to abdicate of their big influence, for example during elections. Apparently all attempts to confront the Bondo members have lead to social disorder or to political suicide.

In 2009 the German newspaper “ Spiegel “ reported on how a journalist was mistreated by members of Bondo, because she has been critical about FGM in a radio program. The radio reporter was abducted with three colleagues, and forced to undress. Thereafter the journalist had to walk naked through the streets of Kenemas, a city in eastern Sierra Leone, about 200 kilometers from Freetown. All her radio equipment was also destroyed in the action.Only after protests from the press association, could she and her colleagues be freed by the police.

According to a report, one of the main reasons why the Bondo secret society is so stubbornly opposed to the elimination of FGM, is the income above average that the circumcisers are earning.

Written by Isabel Henriques