I believe my girlfriend died because her genitals were cut
Sierra Leone has one of the highest rates of female genital mutilation (FGM) in Africa and it can sometimes end in tragedy. BBC Africa Eye has been hearing from one man who believes his girlfriend died after having her genitalia cut.
Fatmata Turay was 19 years old when her mother called her to come home to their village.
She was to be initiated into the Bondo society, a centuries-old tradition involving music and dancing where young women are prepared for adulthood.
Thirty-six hours later, Fatmata was dead.
From the day of her funeral on 18 August 2016, her boyfriend, journalist Tyson Conteh, took out his camera and started filming.
In a later recording he looked straight down the barrel of the lens to explain why he wanted to document what was happening.
“I want to use this film, which is so much passionate to me, to create a debate. Fatmata does not want to see another girl, a woman, die. That’s her wish.”
He said Fatmata had been speaking to him in his dreams, and wanted him to expose the truth of her death and put an end to the practice of FGM.
FGM involves the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, often focusing on the clitoris.
The United Nations Population Fund has documented the practice in 92 countries, but it is most prevalent in parts of Africa and the Middle East.
In countries like Somalia, Sudan and Djibouti, a form of FGM called infibulation is practised where the labia is removed and then used to almost completely seal the vaginal orifice, leaving a small opening for urine and menstrual blood. When the woman marries, they must be cut open before they can have sex.
There are no health benefits to FGM. The World Health Organization warns it can lead to urinary, vaginal and menstrual problems, as well as complications during childbirth and death.
In Sierra Leone, it is estimated that 83% of women and girls aged between 15 and 49 have undergone FGM.
One of the main reasons for the procedure is to tame a women’s sexual desire. If they are “cut”, it is thought it will protect their virginity and once they are married, they will remain faithful to their husband.
“An uncut woman loves sex more than a cut woman. That’s why we reduce the urge in them,” said Aminata Sankoh, a soweis, the name given to the women who perform the cutting in Sierra Leone.
‘It took me a week to urinate’
Conteh got rare access to film the all-female Bondo society, an age-old bedrock of beauty, art and culture.
It is a celebration where the traditional role of a wife and mother is conferred from Bondo elders to young women.
It is seen as an expected and necessary rite of passage.
However, part of the initiation process is undergoing FGM. Conteh was not allowed to film this.
“In our culture, our people have for a long time been initiated into the society,” said Ngaima Kamara, a leading soweis.
“If you are not initiated, you will be ashamed of washing with me at the stream. If I pass by you, I will blank you. If we meet somewhere I can tell you I do not talk to an uncut woman. Like you are sick.”
In his documentary, Conteh recounted what happened to Fatmata just over a day after attending the Bondo ceremony.
“We met her body laid on a mat, just outside the house in the floor. And it was wrapped in white,” he said.
“You see the blood coming out. You see like there is blood and we realised that she had died in the Bondo society after she was mutilated.”
The police arrived and Fatmata’s body was taken to the mortuary in Makeni.
Her mother and the soweis were arrested.
Six days later, a post-mortem was carried out by Sierra Leone’s only pathologist at that time, Dr Simeon Owizz Koroma.
Also present was Dr Sylvia Blyden, the then minister for social welfare, gender and children’s issues.
Dr Blyden is a supporter of the right of consenting adult women to practise FGM but is strongly against underage and forced FGM.
In a public statement, she released details of the post-mortem and said FGM had nothing to do with Fatmata’s death. The soweis and Fatmata’s mother were released.
Conteh investigated the possibility of whether his girlfriend’s death was covered up to protect the Bondo society. Dr Blyden maintains she would never substitute the truth over the reputation of the Bondo society.
Rugiatu Turay, no relation to Fatmata Turay, was Dr Blyden’s deputy minister at the time and is a long-time campaigner against FGM.
She founded and runs the Amazonian Initiative Movement, an organisation in Sierra Leone focused on ending FGM.
She said she was lucky to survive after she was cut when she was 11 years old.
“Plenty people have died. We know, we all know. We should be honest,’ she said.
“I almost died. If I wanted to pee. It took me a week to be able to urinate. One week. Even after initiation ended, my vagina swelled.”
‘Bondo will end’
Ms Turay questioned why Dr Blyden was present at the post-mortem.
“Why do you allow your minister to go into a mortuary to do a post-mortem? Even if she is a doctor, she has no business there.
“She stood with the soweis. That shows that she already took sides. We believe that the result, which we never saw, was changed. We believe that. We cannot bargain the lives of women for votes.”
Dr Blyden denied speaking publicly about Fatmata’s cause of death but stands by her claim that Fatmata did not die as a result of FGM, saying the findings of the post-mortem matched Fatmata’s medical history.
She said any suggestion of a cover-up was false and malicious and added that the autopsy was conducted in full view of family, human rights organisations, police and medical personnel.
She argued that it was her duty as a minister to attend the autopsy and denied she was there for any political gain.
BBC Africa Eye approached Dr Owizz with the allegations in the film, but he declined to respond.
Four years ago, Ms Turay set up the first Bondo society without FGM, called Alternative Rites or Bloodless Bondo.
She believes that the Bondo itself could end if women do not stop practising FGM.
“If women or anybody continues to advocate the cutting in Bondo, it will reach a point when Bondo ends. It will reach a point where Bondo will stop.”
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