6 June 2019

Sierra Leone's First Lady Confronted Over FGM Controversy

Vancouver — First Lady Fatima Bio angered activists this year when she said in a televised interview that, as a circumcised woman, she would not speak out against FGM

The first lady of Sierra Leone, who caused a furor this year when she said she did not think female genital mutilation was harmful, has said she will meet campaigners after being ambushed while addressing a major women's rights conference.

Delegates were stunned when Sarian Kamara, a British anti-FGM activist, approached First Lady Fatima Bio with two models of vaginas - one with no external genitalia.

"I want to present myself as evidence to you of what FGM can do to a woman," she said holding up the models. "This is what my vagina should look like, and this is what it looks like now."

Kamara, who was born in Sierra Leone, said she had suffered a lifetime of pain and complications since being cut when she was 11.

Nearly 90% of girls and women in the West African country have undergone FGM.

The ritual, which involves the partial or total removal of the genitalia, can cause a host of health problems. In December, a 10-year-old girl in Sierra Leone bled to death after being cut, sparking renewed calls for a ban.

Bio angered activists this year when she said in a televised interview that, as a circumcised woman, she would not speak out against FGM - a campaign she did not believe in - and said she needed to see evidence of the harm it caused.

She also attracted criticism over a program she leads called "Hands Off Our Girls" which focuses on ending abuses like rape and child marriage, but does not mention FGM.

However, Bio appeared to have softened her stance when she was confronted on Wednesday at the Women Deliver conference in Vancouver where she was speaking on a panel about girls' education.

She told the packed hall that although she had not experienced any problems from being cut, she was open to learning more about the practice.

Bio told delegates there was a law against performing FGM on girls under 18 in Sierra Leone.

However, anti-FGM group 28 Too Many said there was no national law and she may have been referring to local agreements that have no legal standing.

Kamara told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Thursday that the first lady had afterwards invited her to meet when she goes to Sierra Leone, where she runs workshops on ending FGM.

"She said, 'Call me. I want you to teach me'," said Kamara founder of an initiative called Keep the Drums, Lose the Knife, which campaigns for alternative coming of age ceremonies.

"The first lady runs the biggest girl's movement in the country so it would be fantastic to get her on board. Her voice would be very powerful."

Several of Africa's first ladies have played a major role in galvanizing international efforts to end the practice.

On Tuesday, Burkina Faso First Lady Sika Kabore, who regularly speaks out on FGM, told activists she would talk to her Sierra Leone counterpart. \

(Reporting by Emma Batha @emmabatha; Editing by Katy Migiro.)

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