When 16-year-old Mariatu* goes to bed at night she is scared of going to sleep. She fears members of powerful, all-female secret societies are going to break into her room with the consent of her parents and kidnap her.
Mariatu has good reason to be afraid. She has already fled her village in northern Sierra Leone to avoid female genital mutilation (FGM) and expects to go on the run again to avoid being cut.
“I am not safe in this house. I’m not safe in this community,” she said. “I am afraid, when I lie down to sleep, that one day they will grab me, tie me up and take me to that place.” She is referring to the “Bondo” bush, an area of secluded forest where FGM takes place.
Mariatu’s story goes to the heart of the challenges for anti-FGM campaigners in Sierra Leone, touching on the silent power of the secret societies, who carry out the cutting as an initiation into the group. It also speaks of the cultural and political significance of the country’s ancient structures.
In an unprecedented step, soweis, the women who hold the most senior rank in the societies, agreed to speak to the Guardian.