Understanding the Bondo and the persistence of female genital cutting in Sierra Leone
by Emma de Vise-Lewis
In January 2020, just before so many of our lives changed due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, I embarked on a two-week trip to Sierra Leone to work with three fantastic Sierra Leonean women researchers. They would spend the next five weeks tirelessly working in remote communities researching an age-old initiation rite for teenage girls.
From left: Child Frontiers' Senior Associate Emma, Research Assistant Amie Tholley, Lead Researcher Marie Manyeh and Research Assistant Sarah Manyeh
UNICEF had commissioned Child Frontiers to research the country’s practice of female genital cutting. As in many countries, it is a complex issue. Support for the practice remains high across most sections of society (1), regardless of age, gender, wealth, levels of education or ethnicity.
Data from 2017 show that 86 per cent of women and girls aged 15–49 years and 64 per cent of girls aged 15–19 years had undergone some form of “cutting”, known among the international community as female genital mutilation/cutting’ (2).
The political support that encircles the practice greatly affects efforts to strengthen the legal framework on and programmatic response to its continued persistence. As a result, it is not an issue that is easily discussed nor documented.
Our research set out to better understand the drivers behind the practice, its regional variations, the decision-making processes and the perceptions about it among women, men, girls and boys living in Sierra Leone. The aim was to collect evidence to support the review and adaptation of the current Sierra Leone National Strategy for the Reduction of Female Genital Mutilation and Cutting.
I prepared to explore the issue in detail to learn why it remained highly prevalent after decades of interventions that seemed to have had little impact. A technical working group established by the then Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs and comprising individuals from relevant ministries, non-government organizations, United Nations agencies and academia wanted the research to take place in all five of the country’s regions to ensure that variances across the country would be captured. Over the course of five weeks, 193 girls and boys and 420 women and men took part in focus group discussions and interviews in Freetown/Western Area, Northern Province, North West Province, Eastern Province and Southern Province.
The first thing I learnt centered on the Bondo secret society. If I was to comprehend what perpetuated female circumcision, I would have to appreciate the importance of the Bondo. The two cannot be disassociated.
The Bondo secret society has been in existence for generations. They are powerful female-led groups that a girl joins around the time she reaches puberty as part of a step towards becoming recognized as a woman in her community. This includes circumcision. Typically shrouded in secrecy, Bondo societies ban any person who is not a member from attending the Bondo bush and their social gatherings, including non-initiated women and girls and all men. (3)
The second thing I learned is how sensitive researchers need to be regarding language and terminology associated with female genital mutilation. Many men and women in Sierra Leone do not consider the practice to be something that mutilates women. To describe it as such alienates people because it does not align with their view of the practice, nor does it encompass the practice of Bondo as a whole. I thus learned to talk about girls “being initiated” or “joining the Bondo”.
It became apparent throughout the research that how we understand and frame issues such as female genital mutilation is critical if we are to engage with communities in a meaningful, respectful way. The positives and negatives of initiation and the rites it involves—actual and perceived—need to be discussed in a more tolerant and balanced manner and should form the nexus of government and civil society organizations’ interventions.
Women in our study sites overwhelmingly support Bondo and the customs linked to it. It is said to provide a respected, long-standing means of supporting girls to develop a shared identity and sense of belonging in a community of women and in a group of peers and elders with whom to collectively experience life’s pleasures and challenges. In the Bondo, young girls are taught ritual dances and chants and how to confront spirits. Along with the cutting, they are taught moral values and social mores, which are highly valued aspects of Bondo, as well as learn how to do domestic chores and be prepared for married life and motherhood.
Few respondents in the study were convinced of the risks associated with circumcision that are often quoted in the literature and regularly form the basis of sensitization messaging. The lifelong benefits were understood to outweigh the perceived temporary pain that is associated with the cutting. Women know that circumcision is painful and that problems can result, most commonly excessive bleeding and infection. But they believe longer-term complications are unlikely and that the commonly cited health risks are exaggerated. Hence, they heed little attention to them.
Regardless of whether governments and rights-based organizations agree with this viewpoint, understanding the women’s perspectives and the contexts within which women, girls, their families and communities live is critical to the development of appropriate messaging and interventions that resonate with their realities.
Legal considerations and Ebola
There is no legislation in Sierra Leone that criminalizes and punishes the practice of female genital cutting. Few domestic laws address the issue directly. Various actors have sought a more stringent law. Some have called for an all-out ban, while others want to ban “underage Bondo”, which would allow for women older than 18 to give their consent.
The reality is that there is little appetite for a total ban because prohibiting female genital cutting implies prohibiting Bondo. For most women in Sierra Leone, this is not an option. A ban on underage Bondo, however, is attracting some approval, and is an approach that is being implemented in Sierra Leone, with the argument that it would allow consenting adults to make an informed choice and that it does not challenge Bondo directly. And yet, the conversation around both approaches appears to be driving the practice underground with increasing numbers of girls being initiated in hiding or being taken to parts of the country where female circumcision is not questioned or scrutinized by government authorities and civil society organizations.
Given the COVID-19 pandemic, it is useful to reflect on the research findings in relation to the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone in 2015–2016. During that time, in keeping with the national ban, the National Council of Paramount Chiefs instituted temporary by-laws banning all social gatherings, including Bondo initiations and religious congregations, to reduce the risk of Ebola transmission. The ban proved effective. Barring some exceptions, the Bondo initiation ceremonies and the associated cutting ritual did not take place during the Ebola crisis. Once the public health crisis was declared over, the Bondo and circumcision resumed in full force, often with mass initiations to account for those who had not been initiated.
The experience of Bondo during the Ebola crisis indicates that laws that seek to prevent or change female circumcision can only be successful when the reasons to do so resonate with the people and traditional leaders. The use of by-laws during the Ebola crisis was successful because people accepted the risks that the cutting posed in the transmission of Ebola—and because Bondo was not singled out. Once the threat of Ebola disappeared, Bondo resumed because, ultimately in the communities where this research took place, the majority of respondents do not perceive the practice to be harmful.
The Role of Chiefs
In a country in which government services are barely felt, local and paramount chiefs have significant roles, especially in rural areas. Residents have greater access to and trust in their chiefs than in state institutions because the latter lack the resources to effectively offer services and security in ways that impact on people’s lives beyond the main urban areas. For these reasons, the government and NGOs rely heavily on the chiefs to spread messaging that they deem a priority and to enforce laws and regulations. Our research could not determine how well this approach works. Respondents indicated that the chiefs are compromised by being made responsible for monitoring a practice that communities hold dear and that the chiefs are a part of and benefit from. As a consequence, the chiefs’ role as custodian of culture and traditions does not fit well with the expectations that government agencies and NGOs place on them. In fact, it creates a conflict of interest.
Respondents during our research argued that organizations need to work with the chiefs and other community leaders in an open and transparent way to find agreement on what could work in their environment by determining opportunities for change and driving processes forward together.
Time will tell
Throughout the research, the majority of respondents predicted that the Bondo practice, including circumcision, will fade. Modernization and better access to reliable information is inevitably changing the Bondo, reducing the hold it has on people and diminishing its appeal, especially among younger generations. Social media is demystifying the Bondo. A better understanding of anatomy through formal schooling is having an impact. Information on sexual and reproductive health, relationships and consequences of circumcision all contribute to more girls and families making an informed choice to not join the Bondo. Better access to information and education coupled with increased access to economic opportunities allows girls to create new spaces and identities for themselves, both within and outside their community.
Rather than an overly punitive or directive approach that risks further entrenching the practice and driving it underground, the focus should be on ensuring that young people have better access to opportunities, continue to receive reliable, accurate information and are able to discuss Bondo more openly.
1. It is only the Krio, traditionally from the Freetown/Western Area, who do not practice female genital mutilation.
2. Statistics Sierra Leone. 2018. Sierra Leone Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey 2017, Survey Findings Report. Freetown, Sierra Leone: Statistics Sierra Leone. According to MICS 2017, 92% of women have had flesh removed (WHO type I and II which includes the partial or total removal of the clitoris and/or the prepuce; and/or labia minora), while 6% have had the vaginal orifice sewn, known as infibulation (WHO type III).
3. The Bondo bush is a specific demarcated place (traditionally in a forested areas) in every community where initiations are conducted. They are a place of celebration, entertainment and learning, where initiated women and girls come together to prepare girls for adult life and marriage.