Africa, Headlines

CULTURE-SIERRA LEONE: Women’s Traditional Society Decides Votes

Christian Keili

FREETOWN, May 11 2002 (IPS) - The sole woman candidate in Sierra Leone’s May 14 elections has denied that members of the traditional women’s secret society, the Bondo, chased her out of town.

Zainab Bangura had complained to the electoral commission about an attack on her by ruling Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) supporters in the eastern town of Kenema during a campaign tour.

SLPP National Chairperson, Sama Banya, however, had replied, “Party supporters did not attack her. Angry Bondo women chased her out of Kenema. “Bangura is said to be opposed to the practice of FGM (female genital mutilation) with which the Bondo society is associated.

Refuting the claim, Bangura said, “I am strongly supported by the Bondo. The allegation against her, she said, resulted from “a deliberate spreading of rumours”.

Bangura has on many occasions endorsed FGM, arguing that it is a tradition that is yet too strong to break. At a recent rally in the outskirts of Freetown, a group of Bondo SOWEIS (initiators) pledged their support for her party.

In the campaigning for this year’s elections, as has been the case in previous ones, politicians are being careful not to offend members of the Bondo. The society exists among almost all-major ethnic groups in the country. It conducts rites of passage into womanhood especially in the rural areas. Women from all walks of life are members and it continues to be a powerful force in the country’s politics, despite controversies in the past few years over its practice of FGM.

Maria Hawa Feika, a respected initiator in the south, says “Anybody who does not respect our society does not respect women. Nobody is a full woman who has not joined Bondo for it is in the Bondo ‘bush’ that women are truly taught how to respect themselves, their bodies and their partners”.

In recent years, attempts by intellectuals and rights activists to stir up debate on FGM have met stiff resistance from supporters of the Bondo society. The practice is not widely considered one for public discussion. Self-censorship at radio and television stations ensures that news or discussions on FGM are not aired. The subject is largely taboo in the newspapers.

However, shortly after the present government of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah assumed office in 1996, groups of rights activists began openly campaigning against FGM in the capital city, Freetown. It became a subject of discussions on radio and at seminars.

Anti-FGM advocates soon faced the wrath of Bondo society supporters. After a prominent woman gynaecologist, Dr. Koso Thomas delivered a paper at a seminar condemning the practice, Bondo women and sympathisers staged demonstrations in the capital city. The demonstrators were led by the then Minister of foreign Affairs Shirley Gbujama.

Presenting a petition to the President, the Minister threatened, “We will sew up the mouths of those preaching against Bondo”. She urged Kabbah to stand firm for the society, reminding him “not to forget your roots”. The President in reply promised the society his support, saying he himself was “from a traditional background”.

Many Sierra Leonean politicians since independence in 1961 have preferred to court, rather than offend the Bondo society. The country’s first Prime Minister, Sir Milton Margai was a favourite politician among society members.

As a young medical doctor in the provinces, he developed a close link with the Bondo and is said to have provided medical care for initiators. In office, he continued to support the building of initiation centres or “bushes” in various parts of the country.

In more recent times, politicians have tried to woo the traditional women’s society by constructing Bondo “bushes” in their constituencies. Others have provided money for the initiation of large groups of girls into the society.

Health workers and rights groups oppose FGM on health grounds.

FGM, often referred to as ‘female circumcision’, comprises all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs whether for cultural, religious or other non-therapeutic reasons.

Various communities around the world practice FGM. Most of the girls and women who have undergone genital mutilation live in 28 African countries, although some live in Asia and the Middle East. They are also increasingly found in Europe, Australia, Canada and the United States, primarily among immigrants from these countries, according to the UN World Health Organisation (WHO).

“Today, the number of girls and women who have undergone female genital mutilation is estimated at between 100 and 140 million. It is estimated that each year, a further two million girls are at risk of undergoing FGM,” says the UN health agency.

Immediate complications, arising from FGM, include severe pain, shock, haemorrhage, urine retention, and ulceration of the genital region and injury to adjacent tissue. Haemorrhage and infection can cause death.

“Long-term consequences include damage to the urethra resulting in urinary incontinence, dyspareunia (painful sexual intercourse) and sexual dysfunction and difficulties with childbirth,” according to the WHO.

More recently, concern has arisen about possible transmission of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) due to the use of one instrument in multiple operations.

 
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