“Wati Kura: A Break Through Moment in Anti-FGM Activism”.
At Purposeful, we are focusing on supporting the growing grassroots movement that can leverage its collective voice and action to challenge the values, narratives, and institutions that perpetuate Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Sierra Leone so that girls live in safety, dignity, and freedom. We employ a combination of activities including community consciousness-raising and our Wati Kura initiative supported by Irish Aid to aid efforts to shift mindsets on the harmful effects FGM/C on girls and women in Sierra Leone.
In our second Wati Kura blog entry, our colleague Massah Esther Nyally Bockarie recounts her experience with FGM as we introduce the work of our Wati Kura partners Keep The Drums Lose The Knife and Girl Child Network
Me Too: We Must End FGM In Our Lifetime
When I was in class 4, aged 8 going on 9, a classmate of the same age tried explaining her experience in the Bondo bush to me.
What I can recall of that incident was how she spat and rubbed the spit on her stomach repeatedly. Her reason for doing this, she said, was so she could lift the curse which could befall her if she told me what she was about to tell me.
She had been cut during the holidays and she was sworn to secrecy. I did not understand when she said the external part of her clitoris had been removed. Well, I couldn’t see where she was cut and her explanation mixed with fears made it difficult for my 8 year old brain to comprehend.
What was this cutting she was talking about? Bondo is a fine thing. My only thoughts at that time were of my cousin whose initiation celebration had been envied by all of us. Her dress, makeup, the way she was cared for when seated on that chair: I knew I had to partake in this ceremony one day.
The pain. I tend to forget how painful it was that night. I made myself forget how I couldn’t scream that night. Or how the clothes were stuffed in my mouth, shutting my voice. Or how their loud songs and melodious voices suddenly became irritating. I couldn’t call my mom.
My mom! How could she let a 12 year old ‘choose’ this?? She should have protected me.
But here I was, eyes shut, mouth shut, only the blade on my skin and the pain I felt.
I had been told that this is my culture. What I endured that night was a culture. I supported this culture during some part of my life because that was what I knew as culture. A culture that has been glamorised; a culture that my future daughter would have participated in, had I not had the awareness of the repercussions of FGM.This “culture” continues to negatively impact the lives of girls and women across Sierra Leone, yet we subject them to it, because “it is our culture”. What if this “culture’’ is really a lie?
Know the facts
The history of female genital mutilation dates back to 5 B.C. amongst Egyptians and Sudanese. This practice was mainly done on female slaves whose owners wanted to keep them as virgins and without babies so as to increase their selling price. Migration brought this practice to Sierra Leone and over the years it became a norm amongst the populace.
The Demographic Health Survey 2019 Final Report (PDF, 17893K) estimates that 83% of girls and women aged 15 to 49 in Sierra Leone have undergone one form of FGM, with 62.5% of women between ages 15–49 wanting to maintain the practice. Most women and men believed that the cut prevented promiscuity amongst women. The greatest reason, however, is that female genital mutilation was and is still deemed as part of ‘culture’ in most parts of the country.
This ‘culture’ of genital mutilation has negative consequences for many girls and women. These consequences include but are not limited to excess bleeding, infertility, complications during childbirth, emotional trauma and death. Hence the world took a stance to end it completely.
In 2007, the World Health Organisation and the United Nations Fund for Children initiated a Joint Programme to end the practice and Sierra Leone became a signatory to this, as well as to regional instruments like the Maputo Protocol which specifically prohibits all forms of violence against women and girls, including FGM. However, the country has yet to make any law to specifically criminalise the practice of Female Genital Mutilation. As a result, women and girls continue to die from this practice, a recent example being the death of 21 year old Maseray Sei from Bonthe District, southern region of Sierra Leone.
A New Moment in Sierra Leone
Did Bondo exist before FGM or did FGM give rise to Bondo in Sierra Leone? Our history books and oral stories do little to aid us in answering this.
However, Purposeful and its Partners believe that the two are separate entities, and that we can preserve the values of the Bondo society as a space for female solidarity and intergenerational dialogues while removing the harmful practice of mutilating female bodies.
This ideology birthed the Wati Kura (meaning New Moment) initiative, which amplifies the resistance of local partners, survivor-leaders and anti FGM activists who are working towards eradicating this harmful traditional practice by sparking conversations around alternative rites of passage and influencing the government to establish a national law that bans the practice of FGM/C.
Through Wati Kura and in Partnership with Irish Aid, Purposeful is resourcing four(4) grassroot organisations who are using different approaches to transform the cultures and traditions that violate women and girls’ rights and raising their collective voice to call for laws that explicitly ban the practice of FGM/C in Sierra Leone.
Meet the Wati Kura Partners
Keep the Drum Lose the Knives: A survivor led organisation that uses lived experiences to change mindsets within communities that practice FGM.
Intervention — Public declarations of renunciation for FGM/C practitioners/Soweis and teaching them alternative livelihoods. The public declaration ceremonies are followed by 4 to 6 weeks of educational workshops and safe space outreach activities to prepare Soweis as change agents who can be active advocates against the practice of FGM/C in their communities
Amazonian Initiative Movement: A survivor-led organisation working to promote gender equality and girls’ education. They believe they can end FGM/C by empowering women and girls to be able to make informed decisions about their bodies and well-being.
Intervention — Alternative rite of passage for girls, transforming bondo bushes into schools for girls, anti-FGM/C school clubs across communities in the northern part of Sierra Leone and engaging the media, women and men about the impact of FGM/C.
Katanya Women’s Development Association (KaWDA):
Sparking conversations on issues of FGM/C, child marriage and other harmful traditional practices.
Intervention — Training on entrepreneurship, FGM/C and supporting alternative livelihood.
Girl Child Network Sierra Leone: Promotes the human rights and holistic empowerment of the girl child in the home, school, and community in Sierra Leone.
Intervention — Sparking Anti FGM/C conversations through intergenerational dialogues in communities.
Recently, in observance of the International Zero Tolerance to FGM Day, one of the Wati Kura partners, Girl Child Network hosted a peaceful protest against FGM on the streets of Makeni — Bombali District, attracting some 500 women, girls, and men. The voices of the protesters, young and old, carried an important message, “bye-bye FGM.”
Many years ago, to openly have this conversation, much less protest against the practice of FGM/C, would have been a life threatening situation. Today, we are unafraid to resist this repression and fight for our freedom.
It is indeed a new moment and like Purposeful and its Wati Kura partners, I long to see young women dance to an alternative rite filled with joy- and free from the pain of cutting.
We must end FGM in our life time.
Massah Nyally Bockarie
About Massah Nyally Bockarie
Massah is a feminist and girls rights advocate from Sierra Leone. She holds a BSC in Population and Development Studies, Fourah Bay College- University of Sierra Leone, where she also served as the Student Union Minister of Gender and Reconciliation
She is currently the Executive Assistant to the Co-CEO and Co-Founder of Purposeful.