Sierra Leone anti-FGM activist Rugiati Turay wins German human rights prize

October 30, 2020

Campaigner Rugiati Turay has won the Theodor Haecker human rights prize for fighting female genital mutilation in Sierra Leone. [for more on this and similar awards see: https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/award/23523519-3931-9E2E-2D4F-8F614F366500]

Rugiatu Turay, anti-FGM activist from Sierra Leone

When Rugiati Turay was 12, she was taken to an aunty together with her three sisters and a female cousin.

We were told it was just a visit,” Turay, now 47, recalls. “But I was grabbed and blindfolded and taken to a room. Women sat on me and held me down.”

Turay’s clitoris was then cut off. She still remembers the pain.

“I bled excessively and I almost lost my life. For one week, I could not walk,” Turay told DW. “All I knew was just the pain and the bleeding.”

Like Turay, some 90% of women and girls in Sierra Leone undergo female genital mutilation, or FGM. It is a cultural practice that involves the partial or total removal of the female genital organs, such as the clitoris or labia.

In Sierra Leone, the cutting is part of the initiation into secret women’s societies, known as Bondo, that prepare girls for marriage and motherhood.

When she was cut as a girl, Turay didn’t have the knowledge to express what had happened to her. She just knew it was wrong, she said in a telephone interview from Lunsar, a town some 120 kilometers (74 miles) from the capital, Freetown. Rugiatu Turay works to persuade traditional practitioners to lay down the tools used to cut girls

“I started talking to my friends, explaining to them what I went through,” she said. “Because we were all eager … to become members of the Bondo society. But when I experienced what I experienced, I thought it is high time to talk to others and not to be fooled.”

More than a decade later, Turay found herself in Kalia refugee camp in Guinea, where she had fled Sierra Leone’s civil war that raged from 1991 to 2002. In the camp, she was shocked that amid the hardship and insanitary conditions of the camp, mothers were still organizing for their daughters to be cut.

That was the moment when Turay, who had trained and worked as a teacher before fleeing the fighting, started on her journey to campaign to stop female genital mutilation in Sierra Leone.

The nation is one of 28 African countries where female genital mutilation is practiced

“I decided [that] we needed to engage these people. They needed to know that we have run away from violence committed to us by people  and we are now perpetuating that violence on us,” she said.

In 2000 while still in Kalia camp, Turay founded the Amazonian Initiative Movement (AIM), together with a group of like-minded women, to reduce the incidence of FGM among the refugees.

The name was taken from the “strong and fearless” Amazonian warrior women from Greek mythology, explains Turay, chosen because “looking at the issues I was determined to address and knowing [Sierra Leone] and the people where I came from, I knew it was going to be a rough battle.”

In 2003, when she returned home after the end of the civil war, Turay started up a branch of the grassroots organization in her hometown of Lunsar.

As part of their activities, Turay and other AIM activists visit villages to talk to those involved in FGM, from women and girls, to local chiefs and imams. They also seek out the soweis, the traditional cutters, who earn a living from the practices. They seek to convince them to stop cutting and look for alternative livelihoods for these women. AIM has held several public ceremonies involving hundreds of soweis who have vowed to lay down their knives and razor blades.

It has also held a large alternative rites of passage lasting for 14 days to replace the traditional Bondo bush ceremony that girls usually pass through during initiation  but without the cutting.

As well as running a safe house for girls fleeing from FGM and other violence such as forced marriage, AIM has built a school that includes a curriculum teaching about cutting.

Turay’s work hasn’t been easy. Initially, she couldn’t even rent a building for AIM as no one wanted to have anything to do with an anti-FGM organization. Luckily, her father supported her efforts, turning over his own house to use as her office.

She, and others involved in the organization, have also faced numerous death threats as well as being banned by the village chief – something Turay says has only hardened her resolve.

“When you threaten me and say you’ll kill me, I come back and I engage you,” she said.

“I ask, ‘Why do you really want to kill me? Tell me, what have I done? Have I killed anyone? No, I want to change your beliefs that are not progressive, that have killed so many people, that have kept others quiet but suffering in silence’.”

And so I use those threats and I talk to the leaders of the secret society and I engage them.”

Because of coronavirus travel restrictions, Turay will attend the awards ceremony on October 24, 2020 virtually. Turay was nominated by the German women’s rights organization, Terres des Femmes, for the award.

See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2016/02/19/profile-of-fahma-mohamed-a-young-british-anti-fgm-human-rights-defender/


https://www.dw.com/en/sierra-leone-anti-fgm-activist-wins-german-human-rights-prize/a-55356392

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