The Ebola outbreak in West Africa has one slim silver lining – it is putting a temporary stop to female genital mutilation.
Female genital mutilation, or FGM, is technically illegal in Sierra Leone, but about 90 per cent of women between 15 and 49 have been subjected to it.
This is the highest rate in West Africa and one of the highest in all of Africa. In Sierra Leone, the procedure is traditionally performed on most pre-pubescent girls. FGM is endemic in local culture, and FGM practitioners, called soweis, are paid well. They receive about $60 U.S. for each girl on whom they “operate,” which is more than many women make with other kinds of work.
But reports indicate that many soweis are refusing to perform the procedure because bodily fluids such as blood can transmit the Ebola virus.
Ballu Johnson is a mother who wants to have her 10-year-old daughter ritually circumcised. So Mrs. Johnson took the girl to a secret society called the Bondo that performs FGM.
But, according to journalists, Mrs. Johnson found that the procedure is no longer available because soweis now understand the risk of getting infected with Ebola.
Al Jazeera also reported in December that the incidence of FGM has been “drastically reduced” during the epidemic.
The procedure involves a risk of serious physical and psychological complications as well as the potential for lifelong pain. UNICEF and the World Health Organization are hoping they can use this time to aggressively campaign against FGM.
But the Bondo have powerful social and political connections. They may simply resume their work once the epidemic is brought under control and the danger of infection with Ebola passes.
But there is hope. Ann-Marie Caulker is a leading advocate against FGM in Sierra Leone. She is the founder and Executive Director of the National Movement for Emancipation and Progress, or NaMEP. This coalition campaigns against harmful traditional practices such as FGM.
NaMEP offers life skills programs which provide soweis with alternative ways of earning a living. Musu Sankoh is a 35-year-old woman who worked as a sowei for 15 years, but no longer performs the operation. She is attending the life skills program.
She used to perform FGM operations for the money, but, she says, “It was not my intention to cut people.”
Ms. Caulker is passionate about stopping FGM. She was forced to undergo the brutal tradition when she was only six years old. Now she devotes her energy to a school which is helping vulnerable children. Freetown School provides free education for many young girls. The school takes in girls whose mothers died in childbirth, and others who have been disowned because they refused to undergo FGM.
Ebola has come, and it will go. But NaMEP’s members want the virus to take FGM with it – for good. The Ebola outbreak may be the wake-up call that generations of women have been waiting to hear.
To read the full article on which this story is based, Ebola Is Temporarily Halting Female Genital Mutilation in Sierra Leone, go to: http://jezebel.com/ebola-is-temporarily-halting-female-genital-mutilation-1679493487
For more information about Ann-Marie Caulker, go to: https://gocampaign.org/heroes/ann-marie-caulker/
To read about the National Movement for Emancipation and Progress, go to: http://www.kabissa.org/directory/NaMEP