The devastating Ebola outbreak in West Africa has one slim silver lining: it's temporarily putting a stop to the female genital mutilation in Sierra Leone, where the procedure is traditionally performed on most pre-pubescent girls. Bloomberg reports that many FGM practitioners are refusing to do the procedure, because bodily fluids transmit Ebola.
Bloomberg reporters Silas Gbandia and Makiko Kitamura talked to a Sierra Leonean mother named Ballu Johnson who wants to ritually circumcise her 10-year-old daughter. (Although the practice is technically illegal, some 90% of women between 15 and 49 in Sierra Leone experience it, one of the highest rates in all of Africa and the highest rate in West Africa.) But when Johnson took the child to a secret society called the Bondo that performs FGM, they report, she "found that the procedure has been banned because of Ebola, which is spread by contact with bodily fluids." An Al Jazeera report in December found the same thing: that FGM has been "drastically reduced" during the epidemic. Performing FGM on a girl infected with Ebola could spread the virus to the practitioner, known as a sowei.
Advocates from UNICEF and the World Health Organization are hoping they can use this time to campaign aggressively against the practice, which carries the risk of horrible physical and psychological complications as well as the potential for lifelong pain. (For a glimpse at just how permanently devastating FGM can be, Mariya Karimjee, a reporter based in Pakistan—who is also, full disclosure, a friend of mine—published a powerful essay today on undergoing FGM as a child in Karachi, and on the repercussions it's had on her life.)
But the Bondo have powerful social and political connections, and the cultural attachment to the practice is strong. There's also an economic side: soweis earn about $60 per girl, more than many women can make doing other kinds of work. Al Jazeera interviewed Musu Sankoh, a 35-year-old woman who worked as a sowei for 15 years before entering a life skills program offered by an anti-FGM group called the National Movement for Emancipation and Progress.
"It was not my intention to cut people," Sanko told Al Jazeera. "But I had to support my family."
Medical workers in Freetown, Sierra Leone load a man suspected of having Ebola into an ambulance, September 2014. Image via AP