As a British citizen, I know I have rights. As a woman, I know I have rights. The case is very different for young girls and women in Sierra Leone and Burkina Faso.
This morning, with the WiFi down and nothing to do, I decided it was time to read my Amnesty Summer 2016 Issue that arrived on my doorstep some weeks ago. Unbeknownst as to what I would find, I turned the pages slowly until I saw the words ‘Sierra Leone’, ‘FGM’ and ‘forced marriage’. As some of you may know, I am Sierra Leonean as well as British, meaning that any Human Rights issues over there impact me greatly. In the country where my father grew up, I have naively grown up thinking that Sierra Leone was a beautiful and free country; its national anthem even starting with the phrase “land of the free”. For years I have only seen Sierra Leone as this, until today. The illusion was shattered. Of course I knew it had its problems, like all countries do, but after the amazing news that Nigeria had banned FGM (Female Genital Mutilation), I could only assume Sierra Leone already had.
Let me paint you a picture, a parallel between my life and the life of a 19 year old in either Sierra Leone or Burkina Faso. I have a secondary school education, she does not. I am studying for a degree, she is not. I am free to go out whenever I like, she cannot. I can love whomever I choose, she must not. Of course this is not true for everywhere in these countries as forced early marriages and FGM are usually village traditions. Here are my stances on both issues:
Thousands of girls my age are already married with children and forced to work back breaking labour, day in day out for a 70 year old husband with 5 other wives. This is not an over exaggeration, but the typical life of many teenagers. They are forced into marriage because this is what the village traditions, and the in-laws, dictates. Some may point out that women are forcing this on other women meaning that this is not an unfair system. To those who say that you need to really think about what you just said. The reason why older women force this upon young girls is because they do not know they have rights. An Amnesty representative in Burkina Faso named Bibita Ouedrago went around villages and talked with the young women and men to try and educate them about Human Rights. When she, and workers Liv and Sara first went, none of the girls would speak as they were in the presence of the in-laws. When separated, the girls spoke out about their fears. Today, this village has been freed from it traditional ties and many marriages have ended. All it takes is spoken word and an education.
Now FGM. This is something that can traumatise a woman for the rest of her life. The pain that is felt never stops. Essentially, this is a circumcision for girls. The procedure is generally carried out by the elder women of the village, or an untrained midwife and no anaesthetic is used. The clitoris and either part or all of the outer labia is removed and sewn up. In many cases the vagina is completely sewn up, causing excruciating daily pain for the child. Yes, this happens when the girl is about 9. If you are a mother, I doubt you can even imagine putting your child through that much pain. From FGM, infections are caused, child bearing is not a magical moment for the mother, but tragically a life ending one in a lot of cases. Fistulas occur and the chances of ectopic pregnancies increase. This is something that is very real and happening as you read these words. We need to come together as both men and women and put a stop to this. Yes it is difficult because it is so ingrained within their societies, but that is only because they do not know of the Human Rights Act. Thousands of girls regardless of upbringing would never want to undergo FGM or be forced to bed with a man five times her age. This is unanimous among womankind and we need to foster this idea to ensure that in the future, all women are equal.
Today I woke up with no responsibilities or worries because I was lucky enough to role the metaphorical geographical die and score a high number. I will never be forced into marrying someone I don’t want to marry. I will never be forced into having children. This is not the case for thousands and thousands of young girls. They WILL have to marry and child bear, this often happens at the young age of 8. Imagine your little sister, cousin, friend’s sister or even daughter having to go through this. You can’t so don’t let others.
Visit Amnesty International’s Website to donate to the revolution, until the 18th of July the UK Government are matching your donations so your impact will be doubled. By donating £10 (£20) you could help set up a schoolgirls’ club that raises awareness for girls’ rights, provides a safe space for girls to grow their confidence and offers guidance to girls whose rights are being denied. Or for £100 (£200) you could send money towards the cost of setting up an ‘Alert Committee’ made up of teachers, parents and traditional leaders who can help prevent child marriages by letting authorities know when girls are at risk.