by Suricia Yatiana Esther Conteh
I could not help but glance around the room in awe. The chuckles, gasps, whispers, and scattered laughter warmed my heart. We were all seated in a makeshift hall, without boundaries on our age, tribe, gender, economic status or intellectual abilities. We were all there for one thing: a series of community screenings and dialogues across Sierra Leone about our new short film documentary about Female Genital Mutilation — ‘Wati Kura — A New Moment’. (Available to view in this link.)
The documentary shares the journey of survivors and feminist movement partners as they champion a new moment for the Bondo society — the female secret society where girls and women undergo Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) — A Bondo rite that upholds the sanctity and traditions from generations past but is free from the cutting.
A bloodless rite.
Through our Wati Kura initiative, Purposeful challenges gender and power narratives across communities as they push for this new possibility and new dawn in the Bondo society.
The intergenerational dynamic presented in that room that day sparked a new wave of hope in my heart. Before this, growing up in Freetown as an un-cut young woman and not a part of the Bondo society, it would almost be taboo for me to sit comfortably amid Soweis (the FGM practitioners) and other women of the Bondo society, and openly discuss the issue of FGM.
Indeed, it has not been common practice to see former and current Soweis in open dialogue about FGM. Neither has it been expected before now, to see men, women, and community leaders collectively sharing thoughts and opinions about FGM. So, I felt absolute joy when, in dialogue, a former Sowei who had openly dropped the knife, said; ‘After all these years of practising FGM, I have not experienced any benefit’.
The entire place burst into a fit of clapping, resounding applause in agreement to her statement.
Sierra Leone still has no explicit law that bans FGM. It signed the Maputo protocol, which names FGM as a human rights violation but still lacks actual ways of prosecuting this violation when it arises. And it occurs a lot. To sit together across the country listening to Soweis curate conversations with their community members on the importance of consent before any girl joins the Bondo society is a win. This is especially so, at a time when Purposeful and feminist movement partners pursue a landmark strategic litigation case in court representing a 34-year-old woman, forcibly cut in 2016.
After watching a community screening in Makeni, a practising Sowei shared this with us:
“My daughter, who’s 18 and eager to begin her university journey, has expressed her choice not to be a part of our society. I’ve honoured her decision and am wholeheartedly respecting her wishes.”
There is power in dialogue. Especially ones that create an atmosphere for an inclusive and intergenerational conversation. Because, yes, as a feminist organisation, we advocate for the rights of women and girls. Yes, we dream of a world where they live in safety and dignity. Yes, we support the efforts of partners and allies in advocating our shared advocacy message. However, we are not the experts. We understand that the solution is centred among the communities through our collective work.
Listening to community members, girls and Soweis unreservedly stating their positions and expressing their opinions on FGM, after watching the documentary, helped reaffirm to me the ripples of change that are rising up in our communities towards a new era of eliminating FGM in Sierra Leone.
This realisation also resonates with our Development Circles held with girls and mentors from our Girls’ Circle Collectives, where we have discussed together the Series 5 scripting of our radio drama Karo Kura Kompin, which will carry a central storyline around FGM.
The mix of girls and mentors in these informal and safe space discussion clusters have sparked a lot of invaluable conversation. Girls have shared their fears and worries. They have shared their confusion and their excitement, and given their honest opinions. Mentors have guided us on the realities of airing a series about FGM. They have shown us entry points into these communities to have holistic conversations with community leaders around the airing of the drama series. I am left with the hope that because we value the power of conversations, we are one step closer towards our vision of a world where girls and women live in safety and dignity. Holding these conversations is central to the work that we do, and this real-time feedback loop with those at the centre of their communities ensures we use the mass-reach medium of radio to raise the issue of FGM, both accurate, dignified, and rooted in the lived realities of girls and young women.
Ending FGM is a generational process. I have accepted that it might not even happen in my lifetime. Still, I am happy to know that in the here and now, we have safe spaces where collective and intergenerational dialogues and conversations around FGM are being held.
Glancing around the room, as hands fly up, burning to share an idea or ask a question, after watching the documentary, I see a community resisting. I see a community advocating for change and embracing a new path for the Bondo society. Sierra Leone might still not have laws criminalising the act of FGM. Sierra Leone might still have girls under the age of 18 years old being cut. It might still have girls and young women who sometimes lose their lives during the process of FGM. But Sierra Leone has started a holistic movement with powerful communities sparking conversations around change.
Suricia Yatiana Esther Conteh is a Programme Coordinator within the Media, Advocacy and Communications Team at Purposeful.
To find out more:
Wearepurposeful.org / @Purposeful_org