My painful rite of passage
July 20, 2010 by Amie Kandeh
|The IRC is working to ensure that no more young girls are forced to endure Female Genital Mutilation. Photo: Mary Lansana, Global Crescendo Project|
By Amie Kandeh
Amie Kandeh is the coordinator of an International Rescue Committee program in Sierra Leone that informs communities about the consequences of forced female genital mutilation and runs three health centers where survivors of rape and other forms of sexual assault can get free help. She is based in Freetown.
Female Genital Mutilation, often referred to as “FGM,” used to be an accepted ritual for women in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, particularly here in Sierra Leone. It’s widely known now that the procedure can adversely impact the health of women and girls, increasing the risk of tetanus, urinary tract infections, complications during pregnancy and childbirth, painful sexual intercourse, and HIV. But that doesn’t mean the tradition has ended. It is widely practiced in my country based on cultural, not religious, reasons.
I lead a team of social workers who, among other things, meet with women in local communities, government authorities and tribal elders to educate them about the health risks of FGM and advocate for a woman’s right to choose. I know it’s important, because I didn’t have a choice. Nor was I old enough to make one when I was forced to undergo the procedure.
When I was 16 years old, my mother abruptly announced that my younger sister and I would be initiated into the “Bondo Society,” a group of women who’ve undergone traditional rites of passage in my culture. “Bondo Society!” we thought. “Us being initiated?!” We knew little about the process except that after the ceremony we would be regarded as women and would have the chance to be included in adult women’s conversations.
We were all smiles as we said our goodbyes to begin our journey to the “Bondo Bush,” a secret location. After two hours of walking through the woods with Mum, we arrived at a big thatched hut in the middle of some very big trees.
By the hut, I noticed twelve other girls who were covered in white clay, with beads crossed between their breasts, and traditional cloths tied around their waists. None of them looked happy. I thought, “This is supposed to be an exciting moment for us, so why are our fellow initiates looking so sad?” After the greetings with the elders, Mum handed my sister and me over to the official initiator, called a “Sowei.”
Immediately, the Sowei ordered for us to be stripped of our clothes. When it got dark, we were ushered into the hut and ordered to go to sleep because of “the long day ahead of us.” We lay on the mats that were spread on the floor, without saying a word. I lay there, wondering about what was meant by the “long day.”
We were woken in the morning by music and ordered to line up at the door of the hut. We were ushered into the courtyard, which was now packed with women drumming and clapping. Other women were carrying tree branches in their hands, which they waved as we walked past them into an area where the Sowei sat dressed in all white, including white clay rubbed on her face.
As we stood in line and approached the Sowei, each initiate was blindfolded and lowered to the ground. I was really confused and scared. As I struggled to take off my blindfold, someone held each of my hands down, and someone else sat on my chest. My mouth was gagged, and my legs were being pulled apart. All I could feel was pain between my legs. Excruciating pain. It took a while to set in, but I finally realized that I was being cut. To relieve myself from the pain, I pressed my teeth hard into the strange fingers that were in my mouth. Minutes later, the cutting stopped, and I felt a burning sensation between my legs.
I lay on the floor, blindfold removed, watching the action between my legs with people trying to control the bleeding by constantly pouring disinfectant on the cut. I felt betrayed! I wondered why I wasn’t told about what this process of womanhood involved, and then given the choice of whether I wanted to belong or not.
Two weeks after we returned home, my sister and I gathered the courage to ask our mother why she had not told us about the process involved in the initiation. Mum explained, “My hands were tied, girls. I had to initiate you two so you can find husbands to marry and be accepted by other women in the community.”
I did grow up and get married. I guess that was a positive outcome for Mum and Papa. But it hasn’t been positive for me. When giving birth to my son, the complications I suffered were associated with the mutilation.
The IRC is against all practices that condone or perpetuate violence against women and girls, and I’ve seen our work here change attitudes toward female initiation rituals. For instance, last year a women’s action group set up by IRC social workers in the village of Kailahun was able to prevent the mutilation of six girls ranging from two months to 12 years old. Afterward, one of the village chiefs suggested creating a law that would prevent girls under age 18 from being initiated into the Bondo Society.
Thanks to the efforts of my IRC colleagues, many women here in Sierra Leone now shun the practice of FGM for their children. Yet, there are still mutilations going on today, albeit underground. Much work remains to be done to ensure no more young girls are forced to endure this painful and damaging “rite of passage” as I was.
To Help: Ensure that the United States does not turn a blind eye to violence against women. Ask Congress to support the International Violence Against Women Act.