Boi-Nancy Tangula on how stopping female genital cutting is a big challenge in Sierra Leone

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The Exchange recently spoke to Boi-Nancy Tangula in Sierra Leone who is working to change community perceptions of children and harmful traditional practices such as female genital cutting.

Boi-Nancy Tangula © copyright Boi-Nancy Tangula 2013
Boi-Nancy Tangula
© copyright Boi-Nancy Tangula 2013

Exchange: Hello Nancy, can you tell us a bit about yourself?

BNT: My name is Boi-Nancy Tangula . I am a Sierra Leonean who currently works as a child protection officer for the Advocacy Movement Network (AMNet). I grew up living with my parents in Njala, Mokonde, near the university, where I completed primary and secondary school as well as a university degree.  At the moment I am working in the Kambia region, which is in northern Sierra Leone.

Exchange: How did you come to be working in child protection?

BNT: I am a qualified social worker and have worked for a number of programmes on various issues, including gender. I started working in child protection about a year ago.

Prior to this, I was working on youth issues as a youth social worker, based in Freetown. I then moved to Kambia to support child protection work there, with AMnet. I find that my youth work experience is not so different from child protection work, and I had already received quite a bit of training on child protection through cross learning sessions with the AMnet child protection manager.

Exchange: Did you study social work at university?

BNT: No, I did Home Economics which gave me an insight on the nutritional needs of children. So what I studied and what I am doing are very different!

Exchange: Could you tell us what it is like in Kambia?

BNT: Most people in Kambia are farmers or are involved in small trading. People live from farming , backyard gardening and small trading. It is a very poor area and the community has high rates of illiteracy.  There are many people working there, like me, who have come from elsewhere and can’t speak the local language. This is quite challenging because in Kambia – where most of the local people view child rights concepts as alien and a threat to family values – this type of work requires a great sensitivity to local culture.

Exchange: What are the specific child protection risks where you work?

Female genital cutting is practised here. We have found out that people go out to the villages to get their girls cut but it’s very hard to get much information because it’s done so secretively.

Another child protection issue is that we have many children out of school. The main barrier is the long distance they have to travel to get to school – and in Kambia the forest is very thick so parents don’t want their children walking through the forest alone. There have been reports of child kidnapping in this area, which borders the neighbouring country of Guinea.

In addition, corporal punishment still remains unchallenged in schools.

Finally, another concern for girls, there are many incidences of early forced marriage in the area. And more generally, children are not really able to participate in matters which affect them at the family or community level.

Exchange: What is the community’s response to these risks and what have been the challenges?

BNT: The community has made a public commitment to stop the practice of female genital cutting, but there are many who still continue to cut their girls. Because of this female genital cutting is now carried out very secretively.

Not all of the girls accept female genital cutting and the Pentecostal churches have played a strong role in helping girls understand and reject the practice. However, these churches’ influence does not reach far into the remote, rural areas, which is why many girls in rural areas still get cut. Some girls are also taken to neighbouring Guinea to get cut.

The low staffing at the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs has made child protection and referrals particularly challenging and I haven’t seen any government programmes in this area which specifically target female genital cutting.

During the time I have spent here, I have also learned that there are different understandings and interpretations of certain types of abuse. Most people are not aware or accepting of global and national commitments and frameworks which address violence and discrimination against women and children. For example, if a sexually active woman is raped, even other women will consider this rape a minor offence because the person raped was already having sex.  Personally, I disagree, I believe that whether you are sexually active or not does not make any difference in the case of rape, even a husband can be found guilty of raping his wife.

Linked to this are community members’ perceptions of what defines a child. Many people, even educated people such as teachers, don’t consider age the guiding factor in whether a child is considered a child. Many people look at bodily changes and then say that a child is an adult if their body is mature looking. This interpretation of maturity may mean that the children are more at risk, as it is then acceptable for a man to have sex with a child who appears physically mature.

Exchange: In what ways have you worked to support community responses?

BNT: I have worked on programmes where child protection is incorporated into the adult education work. This can change the relationship between girls and their mothers by using the opportunity of adult–focused work to engage mothers on issues which affect their children, such as female genital cutting.

In one example, women attend an adult education programme three times a week. In the adult literacy programme the women don’t just learn “ABC”. We also encourage them to think about their position and roles as women in their society and community. For example, what kind or role or position do you hold in your family? Are you or a housewife or a business woman? How to care for children or how to talk to your husband, and how to use positive discipline with your children, or when mothers should be worried about their children.

I have mainly focused on working with women to engage them on the issues of childhood, sensitise them to risks for children, and decide what is or isn’t acceptable. However, it’s so far been very hard to work with men on these issues.

Exchange: What government or other official structures are in place to protect children from these risks?

BNT: The Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs has been devolved into line ministries for this particular district.  But in this area, which is remote, there are not enough government resources.  Staff and local councils have limited budgets.

There are one or two non-governmental organisations working in Kambia. For the most part the local Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs uses volunteers who are paid stipends to undertake much of the community work. Sometimes we invite these volunteers to our training courses and we work together with them to design community sensitisation campaigns.

There are many challenges for local people working directly with government structures. For instance, in order to see a judge people have to travel to the town of Makeni, which is very far away from many people’s villages and homes. Often people go to the courts once and then run out of money and the time to return –  they have to pay for travel out of their own pockets. In the end the process just gets lost because people can’t spend the time to leave their farming or trading to follow up a court case.

Organisations working locally, such as AMnet, are often approached by people who are concerned about a particular child or children. In response, the organisation will link directly with the appropriate line ministry and then do follow-ups. NGOs such as AMnet are better placed than individuals to follow up on cases with the courts.

Exchange: Nancy, do you have some final works of wisdom for us?

BNT: One of the best ways of protecting children is to engage the adults.

If you would like to contact Nancy please email admin@childprotectionforum-org.stackstaging.com and we will pass on your message.