National Geographic : 2017 Jan
136 national geographic • January 2017 Sierra Leone is one of the worst places in the world to be a girl. By Alexis Okeowo Photographs by Stephanie Sinclair Girls in the Sierra Leone village of Masanga take part in alternative Bondo ceremonies that initiate them into womanhood without female genital mutilation (FGM). Since 2010 more than 600 girls have participated. In this West African country of about six million people, cleaved by a vicious civil war that lasted more than a decade and more recently devas- tated by Ebola, simply being born a girl means a lifetime of barriers and tra- ditions that often value girls’ bodies more than their minds. Most females here—90 percent, according to UNICEF—have undergone female genital mutilation (FGM), which initiates them into adulthood and is supposed to endow them with marriage appeal, but also is a culturally ingrained way of controlling their sexuality. Nearly half of all girls marry before age 18, and many become pregnant much younger—often a couple of months or so af- ter their first menstrual cycle. Many are victims of sexual violence; rape of- ten goes unpunished. In 2013 more than a quarter of girls 15 to 19 years old in Sierra Leone were pregnant or had children, one of the highest pregnan- cy rates in the world for that age-group. And too many die in childbirth—at a rate that is the highest in the world, according to an estimate by the World Health Organization and other international agencies. FGM can increase the risk of childbirth complications.