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It was a cold and dry harmattan morning in December. My elder siblings and cousins had been gone for three days in a village just outside Freetown. They were being initiated into Sierra Leone’s “Bondo society.” They were taking their turn to become women.

I was too young that day to be initiated into this female-only society, so I was spared from the ritual female circumcision that was used in my community to mark the passage from childhood to adulthood.

Our home had been quiet since the older girls left, and I missed the noise in the house. Neighbors had been coming over asking about the “bondo shamers,” as new initiates were called, and how they were faring at the “bondo bush.”

Mama had decided I should escort her to the village to meet the new initiates. As we boarded the “poda poda” (mini bus) on Goderich Street in Central Freetown, the driver was shouting “Waterloo! Waterloo!” for the town where the bus terminates. It was my first ride via that route.

We got off at Rokel village and walked a long way through a stony, dusty road and through bushes with branches sticking out into our path until we arrived at a house made of mud, thatch and rafters. I carried the basket full of provisions: milk, sugar, tea and Ovaltine. The parlor of the house had benches neatly stretched out in a circle and a grass mattress at one edge of the room.

One by one the initiates emerged from their bedroom, about seven of them from one room. They looked thin. They no longer shared the cheerful and playful smiles they used to. My head filled with questions. Why were they not walking normally like they did before? Why did they look pale? Even Mama didn’t look happy. But like all moms, she had to put on that smile of courage and assurance that everything was going to be alright.

I went with the initiates on a brisk walk to the fruit garden. We collected oranges, bananas and plums to make a delicious fruit salad. We talked and joked throughout the day. There was no electricity, so at night we sat around a lamp in the center of the living room. The initiates sat in a row with their feet stretched forward while the oldest of the initiators organized a singing session. They sang in the Temne and Mende languages. It was great fun—but not fun enough to override the excruciating physical and psychological pain the initiates were enduring.

As a first sign of attaining adulthood in the Bondo society, a girl is nurtured to hold back her tears and any show of agony. The circumcision initiates her into the pain of womanhood and brings home the lesson that pain is part of a woman’s life, from menstrual pain to labor pain and child rearing. When she endures this pain without complaint, it is seen as a symbol of her strength as a woman.

I don’t believe that our strength as women comes from enduring pain in silence. I believe we can reimagine and restructure the Bondo society to nurture our true strength and create a powerful force for the empowerment of girls and women in Sierra Leone.

One of the primary arguments in favor of the Bondo society is that it binds women together and gives them collective power, recognition, and value in a male-dominated social order. However, the significance of the Bondo society has been reduced over time to the sole purpose of circumcising girls and women, a process that is widely condemned by rights activists. It is a practice that is fundamentally disempowering.

It is clear that the Bondo society has not elevated the status of Sierra Leonean women. Women still struggle to take political office and to challenge negative societal norms and traditions. They contend with high rates of sexual violence, teen pregnancy, and maternal mortality.

In 2013, adolescent girls and teenagers accounted for 36% of all pregnancies in the country and 40% of maternal deaths. A 2008 national health and demographic survey revealed that greater numbers of women were HIV positive than men (1.7% of women compared to 1.2% of men). And in 2014, the number of reported cases of child abuse, domestic violence, and rape had increased to 11,358 cases.

How do we change these horrifying statistics? How do we confront the issues they represent? And most importantly, where do we start?

I suggest that we keep the Bondo society, but remove the ritual of female circumcision and replace this with other activities that will benefit girls for a lifetime. I imagine initiating girls into womanhood with a short two- to three-week course that teaches girls important life skills.

It is common to hear initiators saying, “My grandmother or my mother passed the blye on to me,” meaning she learned the act of circumcising girls from her grandmother or mother. For many initiators, performing the circumcisions is a trade that has been transferred from generation to generation. By developing the initiation process into a traditional training course, initiators wouldn’t have to lose their source of income and role in the community.

The course could teach girls how to enter and survive the constantly changing business environment. It could teach basic skills for political empowerment, and skills in our indigenous creative industries. The attraction to foreign media has isolated many girls from our own culture. Knowing and appreciating our values, history, and tradition is crucial in boosting self-esteem and creating a sense of pride and true patriotism. This new initiation could introduce girls to Sierra Leonean arts and culture, our history, values and morals, and food.

Instead of hurting girls, the initiation could contribute to their physical and mental wellbeing. Family life and sexual health education are no longer part of the syllabus in Sierra Leonean schools, so the Bondo society could be a space to teach important sexual lessons.

I think back to the pain, pale faces, and despair I saw in my siblings’ and cousins’ eyes in that bondo bush in Rokel village. How I wish they had a different experience. I envision a new generation of girls emerging from the bondo bush filled with great memories after a fun and momentous time together.

Instead of cutting a part of girls’ bodies and disempowering them, empower girls with lifelong skills that will earn them a successful future. Let them understand that they are not lesser persons to their male counterparts. Let them emerge from the experience ready to face the challenges ahead and embrace success.

Mariama Kandeh is a contributor from Sierra Leone. This piece was originally published on World Pulse. Sign up to get international stories of women leading social change delivered to your inbox every month here.

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