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Sierra Leoen News: CHETANYA’s View: What will it take to end FGM in Sierra Leone?

CHETANYA

CHETANYA

In the last few days the headlines carried sad news about a 19-year-old girl who died after undergoing Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Bombali, northern Sierra Leone. Police are treating the case as murder, and have arrested three people, among them the girl’s mother and a nurse who treated her.
There are so many upsetting things about this case. The pointless death of a high school girl with her whole life ahead of her. Treating her mother as a murder suspect, when she is probably devastated by her daughter’s death, even if she is at fault in some way. And the disturbing fact that FGM is so prevalent in Sierra Leone, with The Guardian estimating that 88 percent of women in Sierra Leone have undergone it.
Shouldn’t this girl’s death be a strong enough sign that this practice must end? As Adwoa Kwateng-Kluvitse of the Foundation for Women’s Health Research and Development said in Monday’s edition of Awoko, “This is one death too many, too many lives are blighted by FGM.”
And yet cases like this are way more common than they should be in Sierra Leone. According to Kwateng-Kluvitse, “There are lots of rural girls who would have died and been buried without anyone taking notice.”
Obviously this will happen again, and continue to happen, unless something changes. So what will it take?
I know it’s not exactly surprising that a Westerner like me would be against FGM. It is not common in the United States, and it has no cultural resonance to people there, apart from possibly among some immigrant communities.
The problem with FGM isn’t just when it goes wrong and leads to the death of young girls and women. There are varying forms FGM can take, some worse than others, but none of them are benign. Even in the best of cases, FGM can cause great physical, emotional and psychological damage. In the communities where it’s practiced, women are often unaware of how harmful it is.
My opinion about this as a Westerner isn’t surprising, nor is it important. Given my upbringing, of course I would be against it. To me the real question is, why do so many Sierra Leoneans apparently not agree? Why is this practice so prevalent?
According to The Guardian, the women who specialize in the practice believe it’s an important part of their culture. The girl who died last week was undergoing an initiation into the Bondo secret society for women.
In anthropology there’s an idea called cultural relativism, which holds that cultural practices should be considered in their own terms, and not judged according to what’s moral according to another culture. It’s a response to the older, colonialist point of view in the West, which wrongly held up Western culture as superior to all others. Clearly that way of thinking was wrong. But so is cultural relativism when taken to its extreme, because it would allow horrific violations of human rights, as long as they’re culturally sanctioned. FGM is the perfect example of this.
I’m a strong believer in the importance of cultural pluralism, but not cultural relativism. We can’t throw up our hands and say human rights don’t apply just because a harmful practice has deep cultural roots. Whether it’s secret society initiations, some interpretation of sexual purity colored by Islam or Christianity, or whatever other reason, there’s no excuse for FGM.
When it comes to human rights, we need to consider the perspective of the victims. An article in The Guardian profiles a 16-year-old girl who is terrified of being taken away and mutilated. She is a member of the Sierra Leonean society and culture just as much as the women who would mutilate her. She has just as much right to assert what her culture is, and say it does not include FGM. So, whose culture do we want to support hers, or that of those who would hurt her?
I know this column the condemnation by yet another Westerner — won’t change anything. What will?
The Sierra Leonean human rights and women’s rights organizations are in a position to make changes, and they need more support but it’s clear their task will be long and difficult.
A lot of other things will have to happen to end FGM in Sierra Leone. To start with, the government must condemn the practice, something it shamefully hasn’t done. It should also follow the lead of Nigeria, Senegal and Gambia, and pass laws banning FGM.
This is the minimum needed to end the practice, but it won’t be enough. According to The Guardian, even though FGM has been banned in Egypt since 2008, 91 percent of married women have undergone it there. Part of the problem in Egypt, and in Sierra Leone, according to Awoko, is that FGM practitioners make money from the procedure.
The deep cultural roots of the practice are another reason it persists. It’s easy for me to say it should stop, but this is surely harder for those who strongly believe it’s necessary, aren’t aware how harmful it is, and may even depend on it for their livelihood.
If the girl who died last week was the only one, that should be reason enough to end FGM. But of course she wasn’t the first. And unless things change, she will be far from the last.
Tuesday August 23, 2016

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