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Women of Sierra Leone saying no to debilitating ritual

November 17, 2011 8:45:42 PM PST
The West African nation of Sierra Leone is less than a decade removed from a brutal civil war that decimated the country and its people. For women and girls the challenges are immense; less than a third of them are literate and girls are often subjected to genital mutilation and early marriage. However, with a focus on education and empowering women, things are changing.

There are many boys and girls that are excited to learn, but continuing their education into their teenage years will be a challenge, especially for girls in rural areas.

"Usually we have initiation here yearly," said Bintu Caulker.

That initiation into a secret society prepares girls for marriage and includes the controversial practice of female genital mutilation -- the cutting of the genitals, done without anesthesia or sterile blades. It's a ritual that can lead to horrendous complications including death.

"When they come back, they become so proud, some of them will not even like to go back to school back again," said Caulker.

Caulker recently succeeded in stopping the initiation of her 9-year-old niece.

"I think a day or two before the initiation, a staff from World Vision came and whispered to me," said Caulker.

Caulker learned that initiation into secret societies is now outlawed for girls under 18. Community volunteers, like Jenaba Massaquoi, supported by the aid group World Vision are working to spread that message, starting with the women who perform the ritual -- the Sowees.

"I actually engage the head of the society, the Sowee. If I talk to the Sowee and convince her, definitely if she buys the idea, she will stop it and she will talk to the rest of the community," said Jenaba.

"We see it as part of our culture," said Fatmata Massaquoi.

Fatmata is one of the Sowees in this village, a woman whose own livelihood is in jeopardy with this new policy, but she says she now supports it. Caulker is her sister.

"Because she's enlightened and she's educated, she knows better than we do. So we are in agreement with the policy and we are happy for that," said Fatmata.

Posters that Bintu has hung on the village walls remind everyone of the law. She hopes stopping initiations for young girls will also help stop early marriage.

At age 14, Betty was upset to learn that her family had agreed to marry her off to a man in his 30s in a neighboring village.

"I met with so much disagreement from the family," said Hatji Samara, a World Vision volunteer.

Samara is a World Vision community volunteer focused on child protection. He's getting the word out about the Child Rights Act -- the same legislation that prohibits the initiation of girls under 18 in secret societies also outlaws early marriage.

"They will be prosecuted by law, that's what I told them and they agreed," said Samara.

Now that the marriage is off, Betty hopes to finish her education, but it's a very different story for Balu Sankoh.

She married young and gave birth at 16. She endured a prolonged labor, lost the baby, and suffered a birth injury known as a fistula.

"Everywhere she goes people say 'You are smelly,'" said Sankoh.

It's a problem all too common here, caused by severe tearing during delivery.

"So the woman is constantly incontinent, she realizes after she's had the baby that she's now leaking urine or feces or both," said Jude Holden from the Aberdeen Women's Clinic.

A new campaign has just launched in Sierra Leone where any woman can dial 555 from her cellphone and be brought to Freetown and the Aberdeen Women's Center, where she'll receive fistula care free of charge.

Sankoh's five years of suffering is now over. She's excited to head home where she'll no longer be ostracized. Of course, preventing fistula in the first place is a primary goal, teenagers giving birth are more susceptible and scar tissue from female genital mutilation also contributes to the problem. But with education, comes hope and the possibility of a future without early marriage.

And change comes with support. ABC News has launched the million moms challenge with partners like World Vision.

The goal is to connect millions in the U.S. with millions of moms in the developing world. To find out how to help click here.

Next week we'll show you how Bay Area people sponsoring children and Sierra Leone are changing lives.

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