Marie is not your average teenager. Poised, outspoken and brave, Marie risked being shunned by her community at the age of 15 when she refused to undergo Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) – a traditional practice deeply ingrained in Sierra Leone’s northern province where 96% of girls have been cut.
Despite being a violation of girls’ rights and prohibited by international law, FGM continues to be practiced in many countries because gender inequality and discriminatory social, cultural and religious norms uphold the idea that FGM preserves chastity, cleanliness, and family honour.
FGM is also linked to social norms regarding beauty and femininity. In Marie’s community, the practice of FGM marks a girl’s initiation into womanhood, signifying that she is ready to be married.
Marie’s refusal to undergo FGM was not only courageous but also extremely profound as her mother, Mammy Simity, was the local FGM practitioner who initiated and performed the procedure on girls in the community.
“In Sierra Leone, women and girls have been at a disadvantage for a long time. In the past, only boys would be sent to school. Girls would just be expected to stay at home to help with the housework and then to get married,” says Marie. “That is what happened to my mom, and once she got married, she became a Sowei – they are the decision makers in our community who earn their living as FGM practitioners.”
“I am totally against the practice of FGM – it has been my mother’s source of income for my whole life. But I only learnt about its negative effects when I went to school. Before that, I thought it was okay.”
Changing perspectives on FGM
Marie is part of a project that Plan International runs which aims to reduce rates of FGM, teenage pregnancy and child marriage in Sierra Leone.
Working with youth groups and schools, the project informs girls about their rights over their own bodies. It also helps girls report sexual violence and empowers them to take control of their futures by pursuing education, job skills training and speaking out about rights violations.
“What I learn in school about FGM, I explain to my mom at home,” says Marie.
“I share it with my dad as well, and the younger kids too. And I think they are proud of my work as an activist. In the community, all parents should feel proud that their daughters are now campaigning against the harmful practices and traditions that affect them and hold them back.”
A mother’s decision to abandon FGM
For Mammy Simity, Marie’s activism was the catalyst that helped her realize how harmful and dangerous FGM is for girls.
“I’m a Sowei, which means I am a practitioner of FGM. But since my daughter has been campaigning against it – and since we have found out about the negative effects of FGM – I have not carried out the procedure for over two years,” says Mammy Simity.
“I was cut myself when I was a child. And at that time, I was willing to go through the process because according to our tradition you are not a complete woman until you have been initiated.”
Mammy Simity says she doesn’t know how old she was when she went through FGM or when she got married because she does not have a birth certificate. “I don’t even know how old I am now,” she says.
After she was married and had children, Mammy Simity became a Sowei and she says it was a proud moment for her.
“To me, it felt like an honour, because I had been chosen by other women. Being a Sowei is my source of income. The money I get from doing FGM is how I’ve been supporting my husband to take care of our kids and send them to school.”
“When I was growing up, I wasn’t allowed to go to school. There was no awareness about the importance of educating girls,” she says, adding that she feels positively about Marie being empowered at school to form her own opinions.
“I feel really proud of my daughter. I’m really happy with what she is doing. My daughter is against FGM and presently we are not forcing anyone to be cut.”
“When I told my mum that I was not willing to be initiated, I was fortunate because she supported my decision. There have been a lot of events in our community over the past few years to help the Soweis learn about the harm that they have been doing,” says Marie.
Empowering girls to stand up for their rights
It’s not just Marie who has been emboldened to refuse FGM in her community, many other girls are also speaking up because they now have knowledge of their human rights.
“So far, none of my friends or any other girls my age have been forced to undergo FGM or get married,” says Marie.
“Because of our work, that practice has been stopped – taking younger girls to be initiated. I have not seen that happen since I have been part of the activist group and it is a great feeling to know that I am helping to make a difference.”
And Mammy Simity couldn’t agree more. She hopes that girls will continue to raise their voices in order to help end the practice of FGM entirely.
“I think if more girls do what she is doing then it will be possible to eradicate the practice of FGM,” she says.
“Since our daughters have been campaigning against this, it has already reduced the rate of girls being taken for that particular activity. So it is now two years since we have done anything around FGM in this community. I think that’s a good thing.”
About our work to end fgm in Sierra Leone
In the late 1990’s, Plan International was one of the few NGOs working to end FGM in Sierra Leone, and today we continue to fight for girls’ rights to refuse FGM through our projects.
Together with religious leaders, chiefs, community decision makers and women’s groups – people who hold great influence in their communities – we are facilitating discussions to raise awareness of the dangers caused by FGM.
We are also training police to ensure girls are protected from harm. In Koinadugu District, we supported the creation of a community bylaw that protects girls from FGM and have continued to support other communities to abandon the practice altogether.
Did you know COVID-19 is increasing global rates of FGM?
Because of COVID-19, an additional 2 million girls are projected to be at risk of undergoing FGM by 2030. Pandemic lockdowns, school closures and the economic crisis have made girls more vulnerable to FGM and decreased their access to information, protection and support services.
We must stop the clock and stop the setback on girls’ rights so that they can live a life free from FGM.