From the Editor’s Keyboard

Last Word

4 March 2009 at 02:11 | 545 views

By Lango Deen, Guest Writer, USA.

Growing up in Murray Town, a small fishing village in the West end of Freetown with a mix of Themnes, Krios, and other ethnic groups, I can’t recall a single moment when women resorted to violence because of ethnic slurs. In my experience, bawdy Bondo songs mocking women who were not “cut” were sung in a carnival spirit that reigned during Bondo seasons rather than in an effort to harass and humiliate. Of course, the small, diverse village I grew up is a different place now: struggling with all the challenges of post-conflict Sierra Leone, but I do know dialogue among supporters and opponents of female genital cutting in Britain, where I lived between 1985-1997, ensured the dignity, autonomy and participation of all women.

If the topic has become, as someone put it recently in America, " a heated issue that is threatening to divide the nation" then I argue that the inflammatory language is coming just as much from militant groups who use Bondo as a battleground in our nation’s divisive political scene, as local reporters using terms like ‘mutilation’ in press releases which some find offensive. Nonetheless, my concern is when issues like maternal/infant mortality, economic development, human rights and justice take a back seat to one of our many cultural identity practices in Sierra Leone, I think the issue has become putty in the hands of militants who play wedge politics and advocate violence against reporters and other people they disagree with.

Still, I think it’s important everyone is heard in the chaos surrounding the criminal abduction and humiliation of four female journalists in Kenema. It’s important also that while emotions are high and passions fly in the culture wars (and a few seek only to score cheap political points), we have broader views on making common cause for social justice.

Last Bondo season, I had a discussion about female genital cutting with anthropologist Fuambai Ahmadu on a listserv dedicated to discussing Sierra Leonean issues. As a rule of thumb, I opt for the term “female genital cutting” because, as I told her, my thinking is a communication deadlock came about since "female genital mutilation" gained international currency. My suggestion was that to go forward, pro and anti campaigners will have to erase the lines they have drawn in the sand. Having said that, the likelihood that western campaigners will see that there is an elephant in the room is on par with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund giving scope to heavily-indebted poor countries like Sierra Leone to carve out their own destinies.

I suggested that perhaps a good place for the Diaspora Sierra Leonean community to start would be in a host nation with a large immigrant community. Take Britain for example where there have been ongoing cross cultural debates for decades. How do you frame the Bondo debate against the backdrop of British law that states a person is guilty of an offense if he excises, infibulates or otherwise mutilates the whole or any part of a girl’s labia majora, labia minora or clitoris; and that a person is guilty of an offense if he aids, abets, counsels or procures a girl to excise, infibulate or otherwise mutilate the whole or any part of her own labia majora, labia minora or clitoris. It is also an offense, according to British law, to assist a non-UK person to mutilate overseas a girl’s genitalia; and a person is deemed guilty of an offense if he aids, abets, counsels or procures a person who is not a United Kingdom national or permanent United Kingdom resident to do a relevant act of female genital mutilation outside the United Kingdom. (The language is used as in the statute). I cited these clauses in the legislation to show that within territories like the UK which have criminalized the act of female genital cutting, how do you advocate, inform, advice?

In my experience (1985-1997), the migrant health care community in the United Kingdom had leading voices like Fanny Mamei Sia Macfoy, who like her uncle, Milton Margai (a rural medical doctor and the first prime minister in post-independence Sierra Leone), advocated that awareness of cultural intersections as doctors, nurses, social workers, and activists helps recognize the diversity of inter-cultural perspectives. In practice, the organization she founded, the African Women’s Refuge in the east end London Borough of Hackney, helped vulnerable African women see that the traditions they brought with them are compatible with western beliefs and social systems, within the framework of the law. The Refuge worked to soften the ‘criminalizing’ impact of the 1980 lobby of FORWARD. Foundation for Women’s Health, Research and Development is an international non-governmental organization that works to advance and protect the sexual and reproductive health and human rights of African girls and women.

African Women’s Refuge in Hackney lost its funding in the early 1990s and closed its doors, because we could not afford to keep shelter, outreach and advisory support services running on the trickle we had coming in. Advocacy and direct action will need thousands of Mamei Sias to decriminalize a cultural identity practice in Britain. Sadly, as I told Fuambai last March, immigrants and international migrant laborers are more concerned with bread and butter issues than to lead social transformations in their adopted countries or examine how their values are being distorted.

I still think the best option is probably a continental initiative with 360 degree- view on the science of the body, and social justice, to come up with policies to advance and protect the sexual and reproductive health and human rights of African girls and women, as well as address appalling levels of maternal/infant mortality in Sierra Leone. Within that national conversation, let’s not forget to protect the rights and freedom of the journalists who were abducted, tortured, and humiliated on the orders of an errant sowei in Nongowa. Or was it Serabu?