In an unprecedented step, soweis, the women who hold the most senior rank in the societies, agreed to speak to the Guardian.
The soweis are unhappy with attempts to force them to abandon the practice, seeing it as an attack on their culture, which is rooted in ancient rituals designed to protect the community against evil spirits and regulate the passage of adolescents to womanhood.
The societies exist in every village and town across Sierra Leone and are a vital communications link between politicians and rural communities. This gives them the power to tell women how to vote.
Abolishing the societies and ending FGM – known as Bondo – is taboo for the political elite.
“This is our tradition, when someone has matured they must go through Bondo before they can be respected,” said Baromie Kamara, a senior sowei granted permission to speak by the village chief.
After the cutting, girls are traditionally kept in a Bondo house in the forest for days, weeks or sometimes months to heal and receive lessons on adulthood.
“We teach the girls that when you marry you need to do the laundry, sweep and cook. You must get on with the new mother-in-law and the father in-law; all the small brothers, you need to treat them properly. So that is why we put them in Bondo,” said Kamara.