Sierra Leone takes one step forward…and half a step back

I previously mentioned Sierra Leone when discussing the effect of warfare on the emergence of disease. Sierra Leone has long been a country divided, and suffered through more than a decade of civil war (1991-2002) and decades of instability prior to that. Since the end of the war, changes have happened, but slowly. Most recently, the good news is that their Parliament voted to increase the age of marriage from 11 to 18 as part of a new childs’ rights bill. However, they stopped short from taking action on another controversial area: female genital mutilation (FGM), otherwise known as “female circumcision.” More after the jump.

Though dubbed “female circumcision,” the procedure is much more extreme than that experienced by male counterparts. Though exactly how it’s done varies in practice, in the vast majority of cases are made up of what the WHO describes as Type II FGM: “excision of the clitoris and labia minora.” The second most common type is even worse: “excision of part or all of the external genitalia and stitching/narrowing of the vaginal opening.” Together, these two forms account for about 95% of FGM, and the consequences can be deadly.

All too frequently, these procedures are done under non-sterile conditions, with the girl being held down against her will (sometimes by female relatives). They can result in extreme blood loss, infection, problems with urination (sometimes leading to permanent urinary incontinence). The procedure can also make sexual activity and childbirth difficult later in life, and, as one may imagine, also carries severe mental scars.

So why didn’t the government ban it? About 9 out of 10 women there have suffered through FGM in Sierra Leone, and there is still a lot of support for the procedure in the county–indeed, so much so that the debate over the issue was held behind closed doors:

Senior MP Alassan Fofana told the BBC that there was a general consensus in parliament not to outlaw FGM.

He said that measures had been introduced to control it and pointed out that this was more than previous parliaments had done.

“They were afraid to be tagged as calling for a ban on FGM. For a lot of people, this would have cost their political career,” he said.

Sadly, while FGM remains untouched by law, one girl noted that just the marriage provision will still make a difference in her life:

“I’m more privileged than my mum – she was forced into marriage at an early age. At least I can decide for myself how to live my life without my parents interfering,” she said.

Well, how to live one part of your life, anyway…

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6 Replies to “Sierra Leone takes one step forward…and half a step back”

  1. Tara — not to get too gory or gross, but you forgot to mention that these procedures are often done by non-medical people with non-sterile, often “found” tools (bits of broken glass, rusty metal, etc). There was a very powerful photo essay on FGM in one of the Newhouse buildings at the Syracuse University campus while I was there. It was… very disturbing, and has stuck with me for a long time, and really got a bug up my nose about FGM.

    I was also struck when reading the God Delusion (? you know, it might not have been, but it was either Dawkins or Shermer…) that Dawkins refers to the procedure as “female circumcision,” rather than FGM.

  2. I did mention it’s non-sterile, but you’re correct, it can go much, much farther than that. Often it can represent wartime surgeries in the 1800s more closely than any kind of modern medicine.

  3. Not surprising that the government of a country that is almost half Muslim and most of the rest have “tradtional beliefs” maintains this practice. Let’s look at the reason for this. FGM is certainly a powerful way to subjugate the female population. Take away the woman’s ability to give herself pleasure and at the same time make her physically more accessible to the male. I’m afraid we won’t see this practice disappear for a long time.

  4. It is a popular myth that FGM is a Muslim practice. It isn’t. It’s a traditional African practice. It so happens that many of the countries where it is practiced have been converted largely to Islam, but the practice predates it considerably. Many animists in Africa practice it as well.

    It doesn’t actually make the woman “physically more accessible” — it actually makes her less accessible. And that’s actually the point. The idea is that if she doesn’t enjoy sex, she will be less likely to have sex outside of marriage. It’s supposedly to ensure her virginity; the perception is that she will be unmarriable if she is not a virgin, so it makes her (supposedly) more desirable by increasing the odds she will be virginal. This has nothing to do with pleasurable sex for the husband; after all, these cultures don’t tend to mind the man sleeping around, so if he wants a good time, he can just find a prostitute. :-/ (There is a very peculiar logic to all this.)

    It’s also not the only thing done to make women less desirable for flings and supposedly more desirable for marriage. In some other areas of Africa (areas which, as it happens, are largely Christian), breast ironing is popular. Parents literally iron their daughters’ breasts to try to prevent them growing large. (Yes, with a clothes iron.) It doesn’t work and can cause very serious damage — even death, if the inevitable burns get infected. And of course it means they may not be able to breastfeed properly. The idea is that if the girls don’t have sexy breasts, they’ll be appealing for marriage because they won’t have been, um, “spoiled.”

    And lest we think that we European-descended folks are any better, most of the stuff about female modesty (including not wearing too much makeup, wearing the hair in particular ways, minding skirt length, etc) is all down to the same stupid illogic. It’s the idea that women are more desirable as wives if they are not desirable as women. We have moved away from it in our society, thank god, but it is not as distant as we like to think.

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