FGM/C Shifting Sands

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The Gambia contests female circumcision (FGM) ban

Published 4 April 2024 Associated Categories Featured, Legal
The Gambia's contestation of female circumcision ban

The Gambia in west African has become the centre of international concern in regard to female circumcision, commonly termed female genital mutilation (FGM). The practice was banned ‘with immediate effect’ in 2015 by the authoritarian ruler President Jammeh before he stepped down from office after 22 years in power. Anti-FGM activists there are now having to reconsider the actual extent of popular support they said existed for the ban.

The criminalisation of this traditional religious and cultural practice in the Muslim majority country came out of the blue. Jaha Dukureh an American/Gambian activist (backed by the Guardian) takes full credit for her work with the former President to ensure the practice was banned then. She said in 2017 “I met with him and two days later Gambia banned FGM.”

After the ban she became the country’s first nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize saying “I’m celebrated as a national hero”.

Undemocratic ban

However the population were not consulted in regard to the undemocratic development and didn’t welcome it. This didn’t seem to matter to Dukureh however. Perhaps she believed a fellow activist’s rhetoric who said “The whole country has been calling for change and for a law – we are moving towards zero tolerance of FGM”.

The ban was also lauded by human rights groups and the large international anti-FGM movement. In the UK, DFID claimed its supported programmes since 2013 helped to make the practice illegal in The Gambia (as well as in Nigeria and Mauritania).

President Adama Barrow, Jammeh’s successor, interpreted the move as currying favour with international benefactors saying “It’s my view that Jammeh’s ostensible compliance with gender equality norms was selective and intended for the international gallery rather than a genuine commitment to women’s rights and democracy.”

Perhaps that was because in regard to one of the world’s most aid dependent countries, an EU spokesman had said in 2014 that €13 million of aid has been blocked to The Gambia due to lack of progress in several areas of human rights, including the recent introduction of a tough law against homosexuality. It was the last slice of a €75 million aid package that was set to run for six years from 2007.

In The Gambia’s 2019-20 Demographic and Health survey (p16) 89 per cent of women and 65 per cent of men between 15-49 were aware that female circumcision was illegal. More than 53 per cent of women and 47 per cent of men believed that it was required by religion. And more than 46 per cent of women and 45 per cent of men believe that the practice should continue.

The ban was widely ignored and despite its illegality the practice continued much to the dismay of activists.

According to the same survey 73 per cent of women age 15-49 had been circumcised. Nearly 65 per cent were circumcised when they were younger than age 5, while 18 per cent were circumcised between the ages of five and nine, six per cent at age 10-14 and one per cent at age 15 or older.

The first case since the law was enacted was tried in August 2023 and three women were convicted of circumcising eight children.

A circumciser who in 2013 had sworn to abandon the practice was one of the women charged. She had been trained by the Gambia Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children (GAMCOTRAP), led by Isatou Touray.

The convictions provoked a national outcry and debate. An Islamic cleric, Imam Fatty, was reported to have paid their court fines. He said ‘the campaign against female circumcision in the country is part of the fight against Islam and that he and his cohorts will unhesitatingly continue to defend the practice.’

Fatty believes that women’s sexual desire could be excessive if not circumcised but also said that he did not have a problem with those who choose not to practice circumcision. He believes Gambians should have the right to practice what has long been in their culture and that western ideals should not be imposed in the countries that do not share them.

A discussion was held about the practice at the National Assembly. Supporters argued that the ban stops women from practicing a cultural and religious obligation. One MP declared that “99.9% disagreed with the banning of female circumcision.”

The Gambian lawmakers voted 42 in favour and four against to send the FGM Reversal Bill to a Parliamentary Committee for further scrutiny. It is expected to return for a third and final reading and vote in May/June 2024.

If the law is reversed, the challenge could mean The Gambia becoming the first country “to defy the international consensus on FGM.” This will have widespread ramifications and cause huge embarrassment to the organisations who have funded and celebrated the success of their anti-FGM related work there.

 Consequences of lifting the ban 

If The Gambia repeals the ban on female circumcision, it will become the first nation in the world to do so. For some, there is huge disappointment at this potential development believing the bill will harm the country’s human rights record and roll back years of progress.

Among the organisations expressing disappointment about the likely lifting of the ban are The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) and the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC). They are of the view that the reversal of the legislation is not the solution. Instead, they suggest dialogue with various stakeholders, including religious and traditional leaders as a better way forward. They are offering to facilitate that dialogue and to share the experience and good practices of various countries of the continent, including those sharing the same religious and traditional background as The Gambia.

Activists mobilising support for their respective positions

Jaha Dukureh, now Regional UN Women Ambassador for Africa and CEO/Founder of the NGO “Safe Hands for Girls” is hugely disappointed at the proposed development. She had believed that a change in attitude around the practice was evident within The Gambia and “Our work has been very, very effective in our communities. UN figures show FGM numbers are slightly going down for girls under the age of 15”.

She now intends returning to communities to remind them of the importance of the law in protecting women and girls. She also believes many parliamentarians are afraid not to vote in favour of the ban and her supporters intend lobbying them to encourage them to vote against lifting it.

Another Gambian activist has already reported seeing the impact of the vote saying she and her team have been chased out of three communities by people accusing them of “challenging our own cultures, norms and religion”.

Some fear a decision to lift the ban could lead other nations to follow suit.

However Gambian Women are Free to Choose spokesperson, Fuambai Sia Ahmadu supports people’s right to practice female circumcision. And plans to mobilise and demonstrate against any interference from external FGM organisations or actions from donor countries that infringe the democratic and constitutional rights of Gambian citizens.

She also challenges the use of the term ‘genital mutilation’ (meaning to be disfigured and/or dysfunctional) reasoning circumcision to be a complementary and gender inclusive practice. Based on her anthropological insights she believes the type that females undergo in The Gambia are mostly minor e.g. clitoral hood pricking or hoodectomy, not the more drastic types generally portrayed.

What happens next will be interesting. If the ban is nullified will it, as some believe, roll back decades of advocacy, awareness-raising and community mobilisation aimed at ending the practice in the Gambia and beyond? Or will it, as others believe, legally allow Gambian women to exercise agency and to choose to engage freely in the traditional cultural and/or religious practices currently denied them? Will it encourage defiance in other countries like Sierra Leone where the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa and a coalition of 26 feminist movement organisations have filed two legal cases against the government to compel ministers to enact a law there?

Whatever the outcome it will hopefully encourage a more critical questioning of the work of anti-FGM organisations and activists generally.

01-05-2024

Much disquiet has been expressed at this development nationally and internationally.

This statement by the WHO African Regional Director suggestsRepealing the Act would not only violate the protection of women and girls’ human rights, but it could also encourage other countries to disregard their duty to protect these rights.”

And concludes “I call on all stakeholders, including political leaders, healthcare providers, civil society organizations, and community leaders, to take concrete actions to change societal attitudes that perpetuate FGM in The Gambia. We must advocate for the health and well-being of women and girls, and ensure that necessary resources are allocated to support them. We also need to push for legal frameworks that protect their rights. By working together, we can create a future where every woman and girl is free from the threat of FGM.”

CSOs fault pro-FGM/C bill, urge NAMs not to repeal the Act

 

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About the Author -

Bríd is a retired health professional. She started her career as a nurse and midwife in Africa where she worked for almost four years. She encountered FGM/C in Ethiopia. She then moved to London where she worked in the National Health Service as a midwife, community nurse, health visitor, reproductive and sexual health nurse and manager over a period of 30 years. She did not encounter FGM/C during that time despite working with immigrant communities who are reported to practice it still. She is puzzled by the current reported prevalence of the practice, the official response and associated activism. And is worried that they might cause more harm than good.

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