The memory of Ebola hangs heavy over Sierra Leone's rambling capital, Freetown. Old billboards reading "stop touching sick persons" loom above highways, body temperature checks remain obligatory at office entrances, and thousands of people continue to mourn the loved ones they lost during the 18-month-long epidemic that ended late last year.
It's hard to imagine that a disease with a 40 percent mortality rate — of the 8,704 Sierra Leoneans infected, 3,589 died — could have left any positive trace on a country already rocked by poverty and corruption. But Ebola did something women's rights activists in the country have not been able to achieve through decades of campaigning — it ended female genital mutilation (FGM), a procedure involving partial or total removal of the clitoris and labia.
With the country racked by fear of Ebola infection, for the first time ever a nationwide ban on FGM was declared in November 2014. This ban officially remains in place today, though enforcement is now largely non-existent.
During the epidemic, the country's 14 districts enforced the ban with differing penalties, but on average the women known as "soweis" who administer the procedure were fined 500,000 leones ($123) if caught circumcising women or girls. Local chiefs teamed up with nurses and toured rural provinces, explaining the legal and medical implications of cutting during Ebola, which is transmitted through bodily fluids. The ban was largely effective and rates of FGM in Sierra Leone saw their most dramatic decline in history.
After the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the country Ebola free on 7 November 2015, President Ernest Bai Koroma made a televised speech in which he talked about a new start for his nation. "This warrants that traditional practices which have a negative impact on health, and which were discontinued during the outbreak, should not be returned to," he said.
Sowei Batewa at her home in Freetown, Sierra Leone. (Photo by Olivia Acland)
However, for the country's soweis, the end of the outbreak meant returning to business as usual, and cutting — known as "Bondo" — has become as pervasive as ever among the communities that view it as a necessary step towards womanhood.
But the lull during Ebola has provided anti-FGM activists with both the proof that Sierra Leone can stamp it out when it has the will to do so, and the chance to speak out and be listened to on the issue. It was during the ban that Rugiatu Turay, who founded anti-FGM charity AIM, ran her first ever workshop with government ministers — the vast majority men. She says the ban provided her first genuine opportunity to galvanize support and spark serious discussion.
"I wanted to make them conscious of the issue," she told VICE News. "I asked them to close their eyes and imagine being female in Sierra Leone. I needed them to understand the pain that haunts a circumcised woman all her life. It's just one way to suppress her: sexually, socially, physically, and even psychologically."
Turay herself went through FGM at the age of 12, shortly after the death of her mother. She says she was staying with her aunt when a group of women came into the house, blindfolded her, stuffed a rag in her mouth to muffle her screams, and pinned her to the ground by her arms, legs, and chest while her clitoris was sliced off with a knife. Turay says the women then started to sing and dance, telling her she had become a woman. "I remember thinking that those women were wicked — really wicked," she said.
According to figures from UNICEF, 88 percent of women in Sierra Leone have undergone FGM, with those who do not have their clitorises removed often facing intense social stigma and being branded unclean, promiscuous, or even diseased. "The girls want it," a sowei named Batewa told VICE News. "If they have not had it done, other women won't talk to them. They'll be mocked in the streets."
A corrugated iron structure stands beside Batewa's house with a signpost that reads "The Bondo Bush." It is within this building that she administers the practice on girls and women aged between 11 and 19. During the ceremony, the girl or woman being cut has her legs held open and her screams drowned out by the chants of 20 other women.
The "Bondo Bush" in Freetown where Batewa performs female circumcision (Photo by Olivia Acland)
For many, the practice marks the beginning of a two-week-long preparation process ahead of marriage, with the woman or girl who is cut subsequently taken out to the countryside for two weeks while her wounds heal. During that time, she is taught by older women to cook, clean, and dance.
Batewa says the girls enjoy the convalescence period and are usually excited to show their family all they have learned when they get back home. "After two weeks of cooking and dancing the girls are very happy and proud," she said. "And no — they are not scared before or afterwards, they know me and feel safe."
'It's such an ancient tradition that the women will not let the president ban it, every mother wants it for their daughter'
Upon their return home, the initiates become lifetime members of the "Bondo Society," whose meetings are exclusively attended by those who have gone through FGM. Batewa says the practice is so popular it will never be banned for good. "It's such an ancient tradition that the women will not let the president ban it, every mother wants it for their daughter," she added.
Watch the VICE News documentary, Reversing Female Circumcision: The Cut That Heals:
Indeed, effectively enforcing a ban is a difficult political move. The practice is so deeply entrenched in Sierra Leone's traditional culture that, as Turay said, "people would not listen — they have more respect for traditional laws than legal ones." According to Turay, politicians are scared of confronting the soweis – who enjoy great respect in their communities and political influence come election time — because it will lose them votes.
But the Ebola-inspired ban has at least ended the near-silence surrounding FGM in Sierra Leone, where those not in the Bondo Society aren't supposed to know its secrets — meaning that before being cut, girls often have little idea of what will happen to them. This secrecy means myths about the benefits of FGM remain deeply held and widespread, despite the WHO stating it has "no health benefits." Many think that removing the clitoris makes childbirth easier, and uncircumcised women are sometimes cut — at the behest of female relatives — moments before they deliver a child.
According to Zihalirwa Nalwage, child protection chief at UNICEF, the only way to tackle FGM is through educating women. He says trying to address the practice with punitive measures would be counterproductive and likely further endanger the women and girls subjected to it. "Prosecution itself would not be enough as they'd only continue to do it in hiding," he told VICE News.
A street in an impoverished neighborhood in Freetown, Sierra Leone. (Photo by Olivia Acland)
Nalwage points out that during the Ebola outbreak the government in Sierra Leone opened up a channel of communication with soweis that had never previously been seen, which could be exploited to make a concerted effort to stop FGM. But he warns that ending the practice in Sierra Leone remains a distant hope.
"We need to work on a strategy which upholds tradition and gives the soweis an important cultural role in society, but one which doesn't involve cutting," he said. "I think it will take 10 to 20 years before the country sees a dramatic, long-term drop in the practice — but statistics are slowly declining and we're moving in the right direction."
Yet there are currently very few services in place to help girls fleeing the threat of FGM, while little assistance is provided to those suffering the many adverse health consequences associated with cutting, including repeat infections, bleeding, and an inability to have children.
But despite the huge challenges facing efforts to combat FGM, Nalwage says the recent halt offers hope for the future. "We must continue to talk about it, and capitalize on the gains we made during Ebola," he said.
Follow Olivia Acland on Twitter @aclandoli