As the death toll from Ebola approaches 9,000 in West Africa, the illness has at least temporarily disrupted female genital mutilation, a centuries-old practice that brutally harms young girls.
The respite is giving human-rights activists an opportunity to more permanently curb the tradition, which involves circumcision to partially or completely remove female genitalia. That pits organizations such as Unicef against mothers like Ballu Johnson of Sierra Leone, who is eager for her 10-year-old daughter Mariatu to undergo the rite of passage to womanhood.
“Initiation lowers a girl’s urge for sex and helps her stay a virgin before marriage,” said Johnson. She intended to take Mariatu to the local head of the Bondo secret society last month to arrange the ceremony, but found that the procedure has been banned because of Ebola, which is spread by contact with bodily fluids.
Sierra Leone has set a fine of 500,000 leones ($118) for performing female circumcisions, typically done on girls between the ages of 9 and 15. At the same time, groups like Unicef -- the United Nations Children’s Fund -- and the World Health Organization are trying to engage secret society leaders in the fight against Ebola and perhaps eventually change attitudes toward circumcision.
“This is providing us with a phenomenal opportunity,” Kshitij Joshi, head of communication for development at Unicef in Sierra Leone, said by telephone. “If we’re looking at a timeframe of March or April for the Ebola crisis to simmer down, from that period up to the next initiation period, we have five, six months to keep on building around the gains we’re making.”
Transmission of Ebola remains intense in Sierra Leone, with more than 300 new infections recorded in the last week of the year. Curbing the epidemic has led to the suspension of deeply ingrained cultural practices, such as traditional burials, that risk spreading the virus. The circumcision ban is both curtailing initiations and exposing the persistence of female genital mutilation.
While rates of female circumcision have declined over the last 30 years in several countries, more than 130 million girls and women have been cut in the 29 nations in Africa and the Middle East where the practice is most common, according to Unicef. It estimates that about 90 percent of women in Sierra Leone aged 15 to 49 have had the procedure.
The arguments against female genital mutilation don’t impress Johnson. Initiation into the Poro society for boys and Bondo for girls is an important mark of success in Sierra Leonean society, and many influential people are members.
She said the idea that secret society leaders, called sowei, have endorsed the ban is making her uncomfortable, as it risks discouraging suitors for her daughter’s hand. “It is a shame on any family, especially the mother, for the sowei to declare that their daughter was no longer innocent when she was initiated.”
The practice, most prevalent in rural areas, typically takes place during school holidays in the summer and also in December and early January. This year, the National Soweis Council is policing Bondo centers, called “bushes,” to make sure initiations aren’t held, said Koloneh Sesay, a sowei of 30 years and president of the council. They are suffering financially as result, she said.
“Unlike other groups that have been receiving financial support from government and NGOs to sensitize their members about Ebola, the council has not received such support,” Sesay said in an interview in Freetown, the capital.
Khadija Bah-Wakefield, a Sierra Leone-born social anthropologist, joined the WHO last month to help the Geneva-based agency better understand cultural practices that contribute to or hinder Ebola’s spread, including the initiations. She says circumcision has been slowly losing favor as more girls become educated.
Bah-Wakefied studied rural sociology at Cornell University in upstate New York and earned a master of philosophy in social anthropology at Cambridge University, where she wrote her thesis on the relationship between initiation rituals and education in sub-Saharan Africa.
Bah-Wakefield is working in northeastern Sierra Leone, where Ebola hotspots exist. She is engaging traditional leaders of secret societies to help spread messages about how to stop transmission of the virus.
Most Ebola cases have occurred in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, which share borders. The WHO is collaborating with anthropologists in all three countries. Liberia’s rate of female genital mutilation is lowest, while Guinea’s is the highest. Some male secret societies also initiate young boys with circumcisions, which have been banned in Sierra Leone.
As with traditional burials, which were suspended because the touching of dead bodies spreads Ebola, circumcisions may return once the outbreak is contained, said Unicef’s Joshi.
Many Africans say female circumcision is a deeply rooted practice, much like foot-binding was in China, and eradication won’t be achieved by Western outsiders whose cultures engage in body mutilation such as breast implants and cosmetic vaginoplasty.
“Change has to come from within,” Bah-Wakefield said. “With education and access to information, the change is slowly happening.”