Giving girls back their futures in Sierra Leone
Zainab joined the anti-FGM club at her school when she was 13. Four years later, she’s refused to be cut – and is changing attitudes in her family and her community.
“It’s hard to explain the Bondo society to people who don’t know what it is, but it holds a lot of influence,” says Zainab.
She grew up in Sierra Leone’s Northern Province where female genital mutilation (FGM) is part of the process of a girl joining the all-female society known as Bondo.
“In the old days if you were not part of the Bondo society and had not undergone FGM, you would be discriminated against and they would stigmatise you badly,” Zainab explains.
“Parents still pass on that view to their children. That’s what we are trying to put a stop to.”
Now 17, Zainab is an advocate against FGM, despite her grandma being part of Bondo and her mum being a Sowei, a decision-maker within the Bondo society and a practitioner of FGM, while she was growing up.
“My mother became a Sowei when she was very young so she did not have the chance to get an education and she did not know that FGM was a bad thing to do,” says Zainab, who has persuaded her mum to take a stand against the practice with her.
The practice of FGM is a violation of girls’ rights and is rooted in gender inequality.
In many cultures where it’s practiced, FGM is believed to be required for a girl to get married. Those who don’t undergo the procedure might be thought of as promiscuous, and these underpinning beliefs are a reason why the practice continues today.
But the physical and psychological consequences for girls are serious.
As well as the danger of infection and even death from the procedure itself, there are long-term risks, such as an increased chance of complications during childbirth, as well as significant psychological trauma.
In her community, Zainab has seen serious consequences for girls and their futures.
“As well as the danger of death and bleeding, FGM also causes girls to drop out of school, because their parents will save up all their money to pay for their initiation,” she says.
“After they have done all that, your parents will not have any money to send you to school, so FGM extends poverty.
“It also drives early marriage, because if your parents do not have money and a person from town comes and asks to marry you, then the expectation is that your parents will not ask questions. They will just give you to that man.”
Today, Zainab leads the anti-FGM club she joined at her school when she was 13, which is supported by Plan International.
She also hosts her own radio show where she discusses issues including child marriage and FGM, to ensure children are aware of their rights and know how to get help if they need it, and acts as a mentor to other girls in her community.
“I do think it will be possible to end FGM one day. If all the stakeholders, the Soweis and all the big people in the community come together and work as one and realise that they have the same dream of eliminating FGM, then I think it will happen," she says.
“But if there is no peace between those people, FGM is not going to be eliminated from Sierra Leone. I want to motivate all the people who are part of the fight against FGM not to give up.”