In most of Sierra Leone, it is common for girls to go through initiation rituals known as Bondo. These are considered an important traditional practice and a rite of passage for young girls.
Secret Bondo rituals often occur in isolated forested areas referred to as a Bondo bush. There, the young girls are taught ritual dances and chants and how to confront spirits. They also learn how to do domestic chores and be prepared for a husband with the traditional role of a wife and mother being conferred on the young women during the ritual.
Controversially, these rites of passage also include female genital mutilation (FGM), commonly known as "cutting" in the West African country. Internationally, the practice is recognized as a violation of the human rights of girls and women.
FGM involves the total or partial removal of the external female genitalia, such as the clitoris or the labia.
While the number of girls undergoing FGM is falling in Sierra Leone, the rate is still high. According to government figures, 61% of women aged 15-19 have undergone FGM as compared with about 90% of women aged 45-49.
Those who carry out the procedure in Sierra Leone often argue it is necessary to tame girls' sexual desire and to protect their virginity before marriage. They also claim it helps young women remain faithful to their husbands.
The World Health Organization warns that the practice has "no health benefits" for women and girls and can lead to many problems. These range from severe bleeding from being cut to problems urinating and menstruating. FGM also carries higher risk of complications during childbirth for both the woman and her baby.
Young girls dying from FGM
In January 2024, three girls aged 12, 13 and 17 died in Sierra Leone following complications allegedly associated with the cutting of parts of their genitals.
The results of a post mortem carried out on one of the girls was excessive bleeding.
Anti-FGM advocates are still pushing the police to exhume the hastily buried body of one of those who died so it can be autopsied.
Police detective Lamin Santigie Kamara, a regional crime officer in the country's North-West Region, told DW that the father of one of the victims gave her out to be initiated.
"According to the evidence now at hand, ... her father gave her to be initiated," Kamara said.
The parents of the victim are in police custody helping with the investigation, Kamara explained, adding that police are also pursuing two suspects, a woman who took part in the mutilation and a local chief. Both are on the run.
UN human rights experts in 2022 called for stronger measures to penalize female genital mutilation in Sierra Leone, following criminal proceedings on the death of a 21-year-old student who was subjected to the brutal practice in southwestern Sierra Leone.
The experts said in a statement that the "lack of a dedicated and enforceable legislation that expressly criminalises and punishes female genital mutilation is hindering judicial or other investigation into, and persecution of, these harmful practices and unlawful killings."
The UN experts stressed that laws and policies need to provide clear accountability frameworks and disciplinary sanctions with respect to female genital mutilation.
Reviewing laws to deal with FGM
The government of Sierra Leone is under pressure to establish partnerships with local practitioners to amend the Child Rights Act to explicitly prohibit female genital mutilation for all age groups.
The 2007 Child Rights Act of Sierra Leone only protects children, requiring their consent to join such Bondo societies for the rites, but doesn't criminalize genital cutting.
Sierra Leone's Minister of Gender and Children's Affairs, Isata Mahoi, told DW that the current law has some challenges that need fixing.
"We identified gaps in this particular act, so now the government is in the process of reviewing this act," she said.
The bill to review the act was sent to parliament last year but has yet to be passed into law.
"So, the Bill is still there [in parliament]. What we're doing presently is consulting with the wider community to ensure that everybody is involved in the process," Mahoi said.
"We want every key stakeholder, like the paramount chiefs, the soweis [women who carry out the cutting], those that are actually doing the initiations, female genital mutilations in what we call bondo, and other key stakeholders; even the parliamentarians, because sometimes, people associate the practice of FGM and politics."
The role of chiefs as influencers
The government also hopes to gain traditional leaders' support in stopping the practice. Chiefs can be profoundly influential in helping citizens make informed decisions.
Traditional leader Chief Pa Alimamy Conteh of Gbakeloko Chiefdom in the Port Loko District told DW he and other chiefs could help put a stop to female genital mutilation.
"Of course, I'm one of the most vibrant contributors that discourage having the children underage [go through the practice]," Conteh said.
"We, the chiefs, should team up to discourage these people so that they'll avoid making their children less than 18 years old join this Bondo society," the traditional leader said.
He defended the Bondo society, saying it was primarily set up to train young women about their role in marriage. "Bondo society is not for cutting."
An alternative rite of passage
In recent years, more activists have joined the fight against FGM in Sierra Leone.
Nenneh Rugiatu Abu Koroma, an international award-winning anti-FGM advocate, has now introduced another rite of passage for girls that does not include the act of cutting the genitals of young girls.
She told DW more parents and young girls desire her version of initiation rites, a signal of gradual transformation.
"So, somebody called me to say, 'We imitated your strategy of alternative rites of passage here in Yoni [in the northern province] because we wanted our girls to go through the Bondo culture. We believe what you have introduced is good'," Koroma told DW.
The anti-FGM campaigner said she had received similar feedback in Bo, Sierra Leone's second-largest city. "It means people are beginning to understand, to accept the reality of change. We need to continue to do this and by the time we will know it, the alternative rite of passage would have taken over."
Koroma, who is the 2020 recipient of Germany's Theodor Haecker Human Rights Prize for her determination to end female genital mutilation, said there was a lot of work to be done to bring about change.
Edited by: Chrispin Mwakideu