- By Tamasin Ford
- BBC Africa Eye
May 7, 2023
Sierra Leone has one of the highest rates of female genital mutilation (FGM) in Africa and this can sometimes end in tragedy. BBC Africa Eye has collected testimony from a man who believes his girlfriend died after having her genitals removed.
Fatmata Turay was 19 when her mother called her to come back to the village.
She was to be introduced to Bondo society, an age-old tradition involving music and dance and preparing young women for adulthood. Thirty-six hours later, Fatmata was dead.
From the day of her funeral, August 18, 2016, her boyfriend, journalist Tyson Conteh, pulled out his camera and started filming.
In a later recording, he looked straight down the barrel of the lens to explain why he wanted to document what was happening.
“I want to use this film, which fascinates me so much, to create a debate. Fatmata does not want to see another girl, a woman, die. It is her wish.
He said Fatmata spoke to him in her dreams and wanted him to reveal the truth about her death and end the practice of female genital mutilation.
Female genital mutilation involves the partial or total removal of a woman’s external genitalia, often focusing on the clitoris.
The United Nations Population Fund has documented the practice in 92 countries, but it is most common in parts of Africa and the Middle East.
In countries like Somalia, Sudan and Djibouti, a form of FGM called infibulation is practiced: the labia are removed and used to close the vaginal opening almost completely, leaving a small opening for urine and menstrual blood. When the woman marries, the lips must be open before they can have sex.
Female genital mutilation has no health benefits. The World Health Organization warns that they can lead to urinary, vaginal and menstrual problems, as well as complications during childbirth and even death.
In Sierra Leone, an estimated 83% of women and girls between the ages of 15 and 49 have undergone female genital mutilation.
One of the main reasons for this procedure is to tame the sexual desire of women. If they are “circumcised”, it is believed that this will protect their virginity and that once married, they will remain faithful to their husband.
“An uncut woman loves sex more than a cut woman. That’s why we reduce their desire,” said Aminata Sankoh, a soweis, the name given to women who practice cutting in Sierra Leone.
It took me a week to urinate
Conteh had rare access to film the all-female Bondo society, which is a centuries-old foundation of beauty, art and culture.
It is a celebration in which the traditional role of wife and mother is entrusted to young women by the Bondo elders. It is considered an expected and necessary rite of passage.
However, part of the initiation process is to undergo female genital mutilation. Conteh was not allowed to film this.
“In our culture, people have been introduced to society for a long time,” said Ngaima Kamara, one of the leading soweis.
“If you are not initiated, you will be ashamed to wash with me at the edge of the stream. If I pass by you, I will hide you. If we meet somewhere, I can tell you that I do not speak to an uncircumcised woman. As if you were sick”.
In his documentary, Conteh recounts what happened to Fatmata just over a day after attending Bondo’s ceremony.
“We found his body lying on a mat just outside the house on the floor. He was wrapped in white,” he said.
“We see the blood flowing. We see as if there was blood and we understood that she died in Bondo society after being mutilated”.
The police arrived and Fatmata’s body was taken to the morgue in Makeni.
His mother and the soweis were arrested.
Six days later, an autopsy was carried out by Sierra Leone’s only pathologist at the time, Dr Simeon Owizz Koroma.
Sylvia Blyden, then Minister for Social Care, Gender and Children, was also present.
Dr. Blyden supports the right of consenting adult women to practice FGM, but strongly opposes underage or forced FGM.
In a public statement, she released autopsy details and said FGM had nothing to do with Fatmata’s death. The soweis and Fatmata’s mother were released.
Conteh investigated whether his girlfriend’s death had been covered up to protect Bondo society. Dr Blyden maintains that she would never substitute the truth for the reputation of the Bondo company.
Rugiatu Turay, unrelated to Fatmata Turay, was Ms Blyden’s deputy minister at the time and has long campaigned against female genital mutilation.
She founded and leads the Amazonian Initiative Movement, an organization in Sierra Leone dedicated to ending female genital mutilation.
She said she was lucky to survive after being circumcised when she was 11 years old.
“A lot of people died. We know that, we all know that. We should be honest,” she said.
“I almost died. If I had to pee. It took me a week to be able to urinate. A week. Even after the initiation ended, my vagina swelled.”
The Bondo, it’s over
Ms. Turay questioned the reasons for Dr. Blyden’s presence during the autopsy.
“Why do you allow your minister to go to a morgue to carry out an autopsy? Even if she is a doctor, she has no business there.
“She sided with the soweis. It shows that she has already taken sides. We believe that the result, which we have never seen, has been altered. That is what we believe. We cannot not trade women’s lives for votes”.
Dr Blyden has denied speaking publicly about Fatmata’s cause of death, but she stands by her claim that Fatmata did not die from female genital mutilation, saying the autopsy results match Fatmata’s medical history. .
She said any suggestion of a cover-up was false and malicious and added that the autopsy was carried out in the presence of family, human rights organizations, police and medical personnel.
She claimed it was her duty as minister to attend the autopsy and denied she was there for political reasons. BBC Africa Eye contacted Dr Owizz to tell him about the allegations in the film, but he declined to respond.
Four years ago, Ms. Turay created the first FGM-free Bondo company, called Alternative Rites or Bloodless Bondo.
She believes that Bondo itself could disappear if women do not stop practicing FGM.
“If women or anyone else continues to advocate female circumcision in the Bondo, the Bondo will eventually die out. The Bondo will stop at that point.”