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Sierra Leone urged to ban FGM following death of 21-year-old woman

In Sierra Leone on 20 December 2021, 21-year-old Maseray Sei died from complications arising from Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). The young woman, who was subjected to the human rights abuse with other young women, is reported to have bled to death.

FGM in Sierra Leone is still widely practised as a rite of passage into adulthood by traditional cutters called Soweis. It occurs within the secretive all-female Bondo society (also known as the sande), which exists in towns and villages throughout the country and wields considerable influence within social and political spaces.

The young woman was found dead in a bondo bush – a private enclosure constructed away from daily life, where initiation into the Bondo society takes place. It was located at  Nyandeni village, in the Imperria Chiefdom, Bonthe District, in southern Sierra Leone. 

Equality Now’s partner Forum Against Harmful Practices (FAHP) reports that the Sierra Leone police (SLP) is investigating the case with the cooperation of four Soweis women and the Acting Section Chief.

Sierra Leone has one of the highest prevalence rates of FGM in Africa, with 9 out of 10 women and girls aged between 15 and 49 years having been cut according to UNICEF

The country has ratified regional and international human rights instruments pertaining to ending gender discrimination and harmful practices such as the Convention on the Elimination of  all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (the Maputo Protocol). However, it has not enacted a law that explicitly criminalizes FGM, leaving millions of its women and girls at risk.

The failure to ban FGM has been further aggravated by the lack of political goodwill and the failure by the State to explicitly condemn FGM. Conversely, politicians seeking to garner votes have made political pronouncements in support of FGM. Recent reports indicate that a Member of Parliament paid for over 150 girls to be cut.

Of additional concern, in the same week Maseray died FAHP reported that a group of 16 girls under the age of 18 years were also subjected to FGM by the Soweis, and more girls remain at risk.

Equality Now’s End Harmful Practices Global Lead, Asenath Mwithigah stresses that FGM is a serious human rights violation and Sierra Leone is failing in its duty to protect women and girls. “It is unfortunate that women and girls continue to be subjected to one of the gravest forms of human rights violation in our time. We are deeply saddened to learn the loss of life of a 21-year-old woman who succumbed to death as a result of FGM,” she says.

“We therefore call on the Government of Sierra Leone to honor its commitment to eliminate FGM in line with ‘Pillar 8 on Gender and Women’s Empowerment’ in its agenda for prosperity and obligations in line with CEDAW and the Maputo Protocol. We further demand a comprehensive and swift police investigation and prosecution of all those responsible for the tragic death of this young woman. It is vital that justice is served so that it can be a deterrent to others.”

Equality Now remains concerned about the alarming and widespread cases of FGM and we call on the Government of Sierra Leone to immediately ban FGM within its territory and put in place adequate measures to protect and prevent women and girls from being put through the cut by the Soweis

We strongly condemn the actions of politicians supporting FGM and ask the State to prosecute all offenders putting the lives of women and girls at risk. Finally, we urge the government to enact and enforce a comprehensive anti-FGM law to guarantee the protection of its women and girls.