KAMAKWIE, Sierra Leone — When Seio Bangura’s final high school exam results arrived not long ago, she learned she had earned grades high enough to get into college. It was a thrilling moment for this daughter of farmers who never finished primary school. But Bangura is not making plans for university. Instead, she spends most days sitting on a bench, watching others head to class or work.

Bangura, 18, left home almost five years ago, after her parents gave her a choice: to be initiated in a ceremony centered on genital cutting, or leave. The ceremony allows entrance to bondo, or “the society,” a term for the gender-and-ethnicity-based groups that control much of life here.

“My mom said, ‘If you won’t do bondo, you have to go,’” Bangura said, her voice low but her chin defiantly raised. The choice cut her off from her family’s financial support and left her unable to pay for further education or to marry.

For more than two decades, there has been a push across the developing world to end female genital cutting, a centuries-old ritual tied up in ideas of sexual purity, obedience and control. Today, Sierra Leone is one of only a few countries in sub-Saharan Africa that have not banned it. Cutting is still practiced by almost every ethnic group in every region of the country. But the practice is now at the center of intense debate here.

Progressive groups, many supported by international organizations, are pushing to ban cutting, while conservative forces say it is an essential part of the culture that is practiced across tribal and religious lines.

As that battle plays out in the media and in Parliament, growing numbers of girls and young women like Bangura are taking the matter into their own hands. It is an act of defiance almost unimaginable a generation ago: They are refusing to participate in initiation, telling their mothers and grandmothers they will not join bondo.

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More than 90% of women over 30 in Sierra Leone have undergone genital cutting, compared with just 61% of those ages 15-19, according to the most recent household survey on the subject, conducted by UNICEF in 2019. The practice is normally carried out at the onset of puberty, although there are areas of the country where it is done on girls who are much younger.

Refusing bondo comes at great social cost. Women who have not joined are, by custom if not by law, not permitted to marry; to represent their communities in religious or cultural events; to participate in celebrations or funerals; or to serve as chief or in Parliament.

In most cases, the initiation involves excision of the clitoris and labia minora with a razor by a senior society member called a sowei, who has no medical training but is believed to be spiritually powerful. The ceremony is carried out in women-only encampments, which were once rural but are now sometimes in towns, known as the bondo bush.

Laws against cutting have had uneven enforcement and mixed results. Some countries, such as Egypt and Ethiopia, have seen rates fall drastically. But in others, such as Senegal and Somalia, the decline has been negligible. Globally, the number of girls at risk of being cut continues to grow, because countries without laws or enforcement against cutting have large and rapidly growing youth populations.

While Sierra Leone has one of the world’s highest rates of cutting, it is also one of the few places where the practice seems to be showing a sustained decline, as more and more young women resist.

Every morning as she gets ready for school, Isha Kamara and her grandmother, Hawa, debate bondo. Hawa Kamara says it is high time for her granddaughter to be initiated. Isha Kamara, 20, who is in her last year of high school and wants to manage a bank one day, says she’s not interested.

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All her life, Isha Kamara, who has lived with her grandmother since she was orphaned as a small child, has heard about the plans for her initiation. But after she read about cutting in a magazine and heard lectures at school — “They told us that anything God put on our bodies belongs there and should stay” — she started saying she would not join the society.

Her grandmother warned she would have no friends. Isha Kamara said her friends were also planning to refuse initiation. Her grandmother warned that she would die single and lonely; Isha Kamara said she expected plenty of people would want to marry a bank manager.

Her grandmother tried bribery and promised new outfits. Kamara just cocked an eyebrow at that one.

The nagging is most fierce on the days when the sounds of the traditional drums echo through Port Loko for an initiation. Kamara has offered to do a no-cutting bondo, a practice being promoted by some feminist groups, but her grandmother has said that is worthless.

Only one counterargument has found any resonance: “It’s a lot of money,” Hawa Kamara said, referring to the cost of the ceremony. A family must pay the sowei who leads the rites, and stage a feast or contribute to a community celebration. “I suppose we could spend it on her studies rather than calling people to come for a feast that will be eaten up quickly,” she said.

While big international organizations such as UNICEF and U.N. Women are driving the push to end cutting, the views of many girls and young women are being influenced by homegrown activism. Radio shows, billboards and traveling drama groups have spread the message that cutting is dangerous, can cause serious difficulties for women in childbirth, undermines their sexual health and violates human rights.

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Bangura, who has been living with the family of her friend Aminata since she left her family home, heard the message that cutting was dangerous from her pastor at church and from a teacher at school. Most of her friends were eager to join bondo, she said, but, like her, some were hesitant, and they discussed it quietly among themselves. This is a significant change from years past. Everything about the society is meant to be secret, and breaking the taboo of discussing what happens there, including the initiation rites, is said to bring the risk of a curse.

The problem, Bangura discovered, is that social change does not happen fast, or neatly.

Kai Samura, who owns the house where Bangura stays now, said she thought Bangura’s family was overreacting. “If they abandon her because she refuses, it’s unjust,” she said.

Samura, 39, underwent initiation at age 8, but has told her own daughters they are free to choose, and should wait until they are 18 to decide. (Her husband is a vehement opponent of the practice, but says the affair is a woman’s domain.)

She reckons she and her husband are less rigid about bondo because they live in a town and social controls are more lax, but she understands the village view: Getting a daughter initiated is crucial for the family’s social status, and for the girl’s own future.

“People don’t hate their kids,” said Chernor Bah, who runs Purposeful, a feminist advocacy organization in Freetown that works to end cutting. “They are making what they perceive as a rational, best-interest decision for the lives of their children.”

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A proposed amendment to the Child Right Act, which has been under review by Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Gender and Children Affairs, would codify cutting as a “harmful practice” and make it illegal to perform the procedure on girls under 18. This is far less than the outright ban that many opponents want.

But the path to outlawing the procedure is not clear. Powerful individuals and institutions continue to champion the practice — some overtly, some discreetly — on the grounds that it is a key part of Sierra Leone’s culture and values. They often bolster the claim with the assertion that the anti-cutting movement is a Western import, an attempt to erode traditional values and a push to promiscuity.

Politicians seeking votes often volunteer to pay for a mass initiation in a community — even politicians who have publicly opposed cutting, said Naasu Fofanah, a prominent Freetown entrepreneur and deputy chair of the progressive Unity Party. She said that several years ago, when she was advising a former president, Ernest Bai Koroma, on the issue, she successfully persuaded most sowei leaders to endorse a ban on cutting children, which, she said, would have been a major step forward. But activists seeking a full ban blocked the move, she said.

Fofanah herself underwent the cutting at age 15 and remembers the pain and shock of the actual procedure (about which she had no forewarning). But she also said it was, overall, a positive and affirming ritual.

“It was a beautiful experience for me,” she said, recalling her grandmother leading dancers in celebration of her transition into womanhood, and being told “that nobody’s ever going to speak down to you. You’ve now become this woman.”

It wasn’t hard to reconcile what had been done to her body, because she knew her mother, her grandmother and her aunts had all been through it as well. “So you endure, and you’re just like, ‘OK, that’s done, let’s get on with it,’” she said.

Still, Fofanah, who studied bondo initiation for her master’s thesis at the University of Westminster in England, did not take her own daughters for initiation and talked a niece out of it, telling her she “didn’t need it” because the family had sufficient resources to open other paths for her. Yet, she felt a blanket ban was ill-conceived.

“If we are saying, when it comes to this practice, women cannot express themselves and say, ‘I am 18 or I’m 21 or I’m 30, it’s my culture, I’m going to’ — where do human rights meet my rights as a woman?” she said. “Are you saying I’m not capable of making an informed decision, of saying I want to go through this practice?”