The slow road to change
So why? This was a group of journalists who were working on a campaign against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) to mark the UN International Day for Zero Tolerance of FGM.
Now, I am not for a second saying that this attack was in any way justified. It has to be condemned. For Sierra Leone, this is not a good image. For human rights and freedom of speech and community safety and for the rights of women, this is no good thing. It's also frightening. But we need to look more at why it happened.
So, let's look more at FGM. And here I have my first problem, I'm on of those people who won't call it FGM, preferring instead to use the term Cutting. (Usually at this point, I am on the receiving end of the look I personally reserve for women who say they hate feminism, but bear with me people).
Now I understand the argument for the term mutilation; it is emotive and it conveys a seriousness that engages people. It is used to reflect the idea that often there is no consent in the process. However, it is also aggressive and it implies a judgement. My personal view, is that if we want the practice to stop, then we need to encourage those engaging in it to understand why it is bad. I have worked with women and girls across Sierra Leone. Many of them have told me that they think Cutting is wrong, never has anyone told me that this is because it is dangerous. No, they think it is wrong, because the white man tells them that it is wrong. It is a moral judgement, not a logical conclusion.
So let's leave the moral judgement to one side for now. Because it is dangerous. There is the obvious risk of infection and shock and the procedure going wrong. There are links between Cutting and the spread of HIV, maternal mortality and quite naturally a whole host of psychological traumas. (I'm going to gloss over the whole issue with it being a way to reduce women's sexual pleasure and thus control them, though it deserves greater treatment at some point). It's really not a step to a longer healthier life.
But what happened when the WHO and the UN and other development pros starting condemning the practice? Well, it went like any other black market practice, it started happening more in secret and mothers started having the procedure done on children who are younger and younger to get round the legislation. The risks went up. The situation got worse.
I do believe that for a girl to be subjected to this practice without her consent is an abuse of her human rights. I also know that because of social pressures, the choice factor really isn't there for girls and that the issue of consent is a difficult one - even if you don't object to the idea, can you really consent to something when you have no knowledge of the repercussions? But that's an issue for another time. This is a traditional practice in many cultures, there is a belief that it is a good and necessary thing for girls to go through. There is also a case to say that taking away the right to choose to be cut is also a violation.
And that, I believe, is how we're seeing the issue framed right now. People are getting scared, and they are asking for the right to choose to be involved in these practices. When I first got to Sierra Leone, I edited a piece of research that my colleagues had carried out about perceptions of human rights in the villages we were working in. I was amazed. The big news as I saw it, was that people were talking about the right to choose to participate in secret societies - but not the right to choose not to. This was, I felt, a key point, why was more of this not being made in the write up and in the recommendations? None of my colleagues, all local people, took me seriously, and months later I understood why. It is the right to be involved that they feel is under threat. People like me are turning up and telling them that they should be opting out of this dangerous, 'wrong' practice, but it is not wrong in their eyes. Suddenly, this practice, tradition, that has been going on for longer than anyone can remember, is up for question. And people don't like it.
Now we have to look, and wonder if by passing that judgement, by trying to force what has for a long time been a traditional practice into becoming a taboo and a shameful thing, have we saved any lives? Whether something is illegal or legal doesn't generally have a massive impact on whether it happens or not, all it does is increase the risk, make it more dangerous.
Cultural change is the only thing that will alter the practice of cutting women. And that will take time. And it will only happen through education and knowledge and empowerment. And there will be more women like those in Sierra Leone who are subjected to humiliation and attacks whilst they are defending these rights. And we need to support those women, and that movement.
First do no harm.
Let's not focus on campaigning against the 'harmful' practice of FGM. Let's start educating people about how to make the practice safer, help people to understand the risks and the implications. Let's take away the moral argument, and the religious argument and try and stop women from dying, their babies from dying. If the science is right, and we can make Cutting safer, then there will be an impact on so many other things that are issues for developing countries. It will save lives.
The women of Sierra Leone are not stupid, and neither are they weak. The moment of my time in Sierra Leone that resonates the strongest with me, was when I spent a couple of hours with three girls, young teenagers, listening to them discuss and debate what it was that made traditional practices harmful. They had differing views, they debated, they argued with each other critically. (I didn't say a word, my Krio was good enough only to follow the conversation, and I doubt they realised it was even that good). Those girls are making that change right now, by questioning, talking, thinking.
Change will happen. Change is happening right now. On the way to that change, there will be tragedy and there will be incidents like this one, of public shame and humiliation. Of course that is awful, but perhaps not avoidable. Think of foot binding in China, and in our own recent history, of the backstreet abortionist movement.
Women who are affected by the issue are and will continue to make that change for themselves, and it will be a change that they want to see, when they are ready for it. And it will last.