In a small village of about 1000 people in Sierra Leone, ending female genital mutilation is proving to be a wise economic decision, saving the community a lot of money and even providing land for farming. In Sierra Leone, young girls are cut during Bondo Bush – an initiation ceremony into a powerful women’s society known as the Bondo.
In Thawuya, a village in the Port Loko district of Sierra Leone, this initiation ceremony takes place several times a year in a two-week festival that requires new clothes and feasts that costs the entire village a ton of money including fees to be paid by parents and the Soweis – women who do the cutting.
However, last year, the chief of the village called for an end to the initiation and the shrine where it took place was pulled down. Now, the villagers testify that they have food reserves and more money to cater for their children. And the land that housed the shrine is currently being used to grow crops.
Sierra Leone has one of the highest rates of FGM in Africa with nine in 10 girls subjected to genital mutilation. The West African country is one of six African countries where the practice remains legal despite a ban on it in 2014 as part of emergency health measures during the Ebola crisis and another ban seven months ago in response to political violence related to men’s secret societies.
In Sierra Leone, like in several other African countries where FGM is still being practised, the act usually takes the form of a crudely performed operation to remove a part of the female genitalia with razor blades, penknives or broken glass as a rite of passage into adulthood, marriage or motherhood. But while factors like gender inequality, myths and traditional beliefs form the foundation of the practice, for many women, FGM is also a profession, a source of livelihood.
Soweis are trained from a young age to be cutters and are seen as powerful leaders and custodians of tradition. For many of them, cutting is all they know to do, so they stick with the practice not because they love it but because tradition compels them to and because that’s the only way they know to make a living.
Soweis earn about 200,000 leones ($20) for each girl they cut, according to Reuters. This is not a lot of money, especially as they still have to pay for licenses and contribute to the ceremonies, still, it is a means of livelihood and their expenses are often made up for in gifts received from parents for performing the ritual.
Hence the irony of the economic impact of ending FGM – Soweis are put out of business while the rest of the village enjoy the benefits of giving up the barbaric tradition. This is why global organizations and grass-root NGO’s committed to ending FGM in Sierra Leone and other African countries are now creating alternative means of survival for women whose only means of livelihood is cutting.
Over 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone FGM. This year, an estimated 4.1 million girls are at risk of being cut. In 25 countries where FGM is routinely practised and data are available, an estimated 68 million girls will be cut between 2015 and 2030 unless concerted and accelerated action is taken.