Female circumcision has been a hot debate over the years in Sierra Leone and even the world over. There are vehement calls for the ban of the practice.
But whilst some African countries like Ghana have succeeded in banning the practice Sierra Leone continues to debate whether “to cut or not to cut”.
The debate was shifted to parliament in July 2007 when UNICEF together with the ministry of Welfare Gender and Children’s Affairs tried to push through the Child Act which contained the ban on “Harmful practices and customs”, skillfully defining female circumcision.
Members of Parliament were not ready for such proscribe on female circumcision, especially when elections were approaching and deleted that section from the bill which was passed into an Act.
However, it is not completely dismal for the anti-female circumcision activists because they were able to push through another section in the Act which stipulated that the child should not be circumcised until she reaches the age of consent (18 years). This at least will help to curb the practice until they go back with another amendment for complete ban whenever that will be.
Yet female circumcision is common in many parts of the country and it has been a practice for decades.
Estimates of the number of women who have been circumcised in the country are not available but analysts pegged the figure to run as high as a million.
Many others that do not practice female circumcision perhaps may wonder what this custom is and why people do it. If it is practiced by your kith and kin, you may have wondered: ‘Should I let my daughter be circumcised?’ Neighbours, relatives, and the sheer weight of a long, long tradition can pressure parents to go along with the custom. Yet it has been discovered that the operation entails risks. Hence, parents, before consenting to the operation, need to give the matter much thought.
They should find out exactly what the operation is, what it is meant to accomplish, and what the risks are. So what is female circumcision?
What Is It?
Really, the term is a misnomer. “Circumcision” means “cutting around” and refers to the operation on a boy. For a girl, the operation is more an “excision,” that is, a partial or a total cutting off of the clitoris, perhaps also cutting away the labia minora, the inner lips of the vulva. This operation, performed on girls from one week old to ten years or more.
The Operation Is Dangerous
The operation is painful and dangerous. There had been reported cases of deaths after the operation had been performed.
Nevertheless actual statistics are not available, but fatalities must be common, since the operation is generally performed by women having no knowledge of proper hygiene and is often done without using anesthesia.
One “Sowei” (local name for women that do the operations) argued that girls hardly die after the operations. “The very few deaths were as a result of witchcraft, if they are witches then they will not survive all the rituals,” she explained.
However, If a girl survives the operation, there are further hazards. A UNESCO report lists some of them: severe shock from fear and pain; uncontrolled bleeding; tetanus and other infections; painful menstruation during adolescence; infection when the scars are broken after marriage; difficulties during childbirth. The magazine World Health adds: “The permanent changes in the female genitalia, the growth of dermoid cyst and the development of bladder fistulae, as well as other pathological conditions . . . may affect normal sexuality and interfere in marital relationships, and can lead to infertility or result in divorce.”
Yes, this is a risky procedure. So why do parents do it?
‘It Has Always Been Done’
In Sierra Leone, the practice is accompanied by superstitious rites, but seemingly no religion specifically commands it.
Some view the operation as needed to calm a woman’s sexual inclinations or to make her truly feminine (the clitoris being viewed as a mannish organ). The Sowei explained it this way to Awoko: “We are circumcised and insist on circumcising our daughters so that there is no mixing between a male and a female. The woman must be truly female, and the man must be male. Every woman must be circumcised in order not to be oversexed and constantly in a state of excitement.” She went on: “It is shameful not to be circumcised. We are not foreigners; only foreigners do not get circumcised.”
Female circumcision is also thought to have health benefits. Balu who could not conceive for over five years felt the reason for her problem was that she had not been circumcised when she was a child. So at the age of 24 she went for circumcision.
Some insist that female circumcision is necessary for hygiene, while others maintain that it preserves a girl’s chastity. It is also said that a woman’s external genitals are “dirty and ugly,” and circumcision is “an effort to obtain a smooth, and therefore clean, body.” Supposedly, many men would not want to marry an uncircumcised girl. Yet, often it is not men but women who insist on preserving the custom.
Usually, it is arranged for by mothers or by female relatives and performed by local women- “Soweis”.
The truth is, the original reasons for female circumcision have long since been forgotten, and probably the major reason why it is still practiced is that ‘it has always been done.’ If parents fail to circumcise their daughters, the grandparents may find ways to get it done. Uncircumcised little girls may ask their parents to circumcise them so that they can be like everyone else.
Local and International groups such as the World Health Organization , UNICEF, and some women activists strongly discourage female circumcision, but the guardians of this controversial practice view their efforts as an intrusion into their personal affairs.
One female parliamentarian that does not want her name to be mentioned in this article who said that she has been circumcised herself argued that, “It represents a rite of passage for girls and should continue. It’s our business, and we will decide what to preserve and what to be rid of.”