By Emma Batha and Nellie Peyton
LONDON, Jan 25 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Sierra Leone has banned female genital mutilation (FGM) as part of a wider clampdown on initiation ceremonies by secret societies, a minister has confirmed.
With 9 in 10 girls cut, Sierra Leone has one of the highest rates of FGM in Africa, according to UN data, and is among only a handful of African countries where the practice remains legal.
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Girls are cut during initiations into powerful secret societies — known as the Bondo — which wield significant political clout.
The ban on initiations was announced by Minister of Local Government and Rural Development Anthony Brewah in a letter to regional ministers.
"[The] government has with immediate effect banned initiation countrywide," said the letter, dated Jan 21.
Brewah told the Thomson Reuters Foundation the ban was in response to political violence related to men's secret societies, but he confirmed that it also applied to initiations for women's secret societies.
FGM, which typically involves the partial or total removal of the female genitalia, can cause serious physical and psychological problems.
Campaigners against FGM said they would use the letter to galvanize action to eradicate the practice.
Activist Rugiatu Turay, who is meeting Brewah and the social welfare minister next week, said the ban was a "step in the right direction."
"We want to make sure that the government knows that the bodies of women are not battle grounds," said Turay, a former minister.
"We want to know what they will do to protect women, and how they will make sure the ban is enforced?"
The death of a 10-year-old girl following FGM in December sparked renewed calls for an end to the practice.
Turay, founder of grassroots anti-FGM group Amazonian Initiative Movement, said the meeting would discuss how genital cutting could be replaced with alternative rites of passage.
"We don't want to eradicate the Bondo — it's our culture — but we want to make sure that FGM is removed from initiation practices," she said.
Turay said campaigners would also meet traditional cutters next week in the area where the girl died. She said some had already told activists they were ready to stop.
There is a growing global movement to eradicate FGM which affects an estimated 200 million women and girls worldwide.
But experts say authorities in Sierra Leone and neighboring Liberia have been very resistant to introducing laws on FGM because of the power wielded by the secret societies.
A one-year ban on FGM in Liberia — introduced last January by outgoing president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf — expired last week.
(Reporting by Emma Batha @emmabatha in London and Nellie Peyton in Dakar; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)