Why is Female Genital Mutation in Sierra Leone Still an Issue?

Why is Female Genital Mutation in Sierra Leone Still an Issue?


Female Genital Mutilation. Photo by Public Radio International

As the sun set in Sierra Leone on a recent Saturday, Rugiatu Turay, 45, stood under a low-hanging tree. She swung her phone left and right, in search of the best signal. She wore a green head tie that sat neatly on top of her coil black hair. Her voice soft but full of passion as she spoke about female genital mutation (FGM).

Turay has spoken out against FGM for more than three decades.

When Turay was eleven, her mother died and although she believed those around her would be empathetic, just ten days after losing her mother, she was subjected to FGM. She recounted the experience as being more painful than losing a parent.

“I call myself a hero,” Turay said over a video interview. “ When I was cut, I almost bled to death.”

She lived on, but not without losing her 5-year-old sister and cousin to the tradition. Then in 1998, she moved to a refugee camp where young Turay decided that age would not stop her from speaking out against FGM to her friends, hoping to keep her relatives’ memory alive. She referenced her lifelong scars — both mentally and physically — and noted that even to this day, for her, speaking about FGM is a healing process.

According to the World Health Organization, FGM includes “all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injuries to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” The United Nations recognizes the practice as a form of torture. FGM has adverse effects on females both physically and mentally — including severe bleeding, urinary problems, infections, childbirth complications, cysts, and an increased risk of newborn death.

Yet, the tradition continues in countries like Sierra Leone. A 2019 Demographic Health Survey cited Sierra Leone as having one of the highest FGM prevalence rates in Africa. But, why?

Some say it’s been challenging to end FGM in Sierra Leone due to a lack of wealth and education.


Dr. Bintu Mansaray, a medical doctor and public health specialist in Sierra Leone says, “It has been difficult to end FGM due to how interwoven it is into the fabric of people’s traditional beliefs. Community-based organizations are doing the work in ending FGM by going into communities and working with them to separate their traditions from the harmful cutting. These organizations should be supported to show communities how much the harm of FGM outweighs any societal advantages it confers.”

The exact number of procedures remains unknown, but over 200 million females today have undergone FGM in 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia — a tradition usually carried out on girls between infancy and age 15, with 83% of women and girls aged between 15 and 49 having undergone the procedure.

For Turay, it’s been years since she experienced the ordeal, yet, recently in December 2021, 21-year-old Maseray Sei died from FGM complications in Sierra Leone.

When an autopsy completed in January confirmed Sei’s cause of death, it sparked a global frenzy. Several local and international NGOs and activists began calling for the abandonment of FGM, including via press releases and viral social media posts.

Asenath Mwithigah, the Global Lead for Equality Now’s Ending Harmful Practices program, took a step further. She led a team to Sierra Leone to speak with state actors, government officials, and the Minister for Gender and Children Affairs about the enhancement of a law criminalizing FGM.

Among her statements, she suggested that Sierra Leone could perhaps adopt legislation from other African countries that have already criminalized the practice.

But while there, she made a surprising discovery.

“There’s no one against criminalizing FGM because they all believe that it is a human rights violation. However, there’s a lot of stigma around FGM because, in closed-door meetings, they share how their own daughters are not undergoing FGM, but they would be very quick to say, don’t quote me,” Mwithigah said. “They have not gotten to a point where they can openly speak against FGM yet. These are people who are in the highest positions of power in this country.”

Mwithigah notes there’s fear when speaking about FGM because there’s a lot of fear around the Bondo society — an all-female, secret society in West Africa.

Aminata Koroma, a survivor of FGM living in Sierra Leone, remembers being undressed, blindfolded, and laid on the ground when she felt a sharp pain — the cutting of her clitoris. She wants to see legislation that bans FGM within the Bondo society.

“For all of us that have gone through FGM, we know the consequences are the same,” Koroma said. “There are a lot of good values within the Bondo society, but we want to see how we can promote an alternative rite of passage without cutting, without blood.”

Though Turay remains committed to alerting others of the dangers of FGM through education, she believes real change is only sustainable through policymaking. With other African countries like Liberia enacting a three-year suspension on female genital mutilation this February, perhaps there is some hope for Turay’s fight after all of these years.

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Omose I.

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