The Gambia bans Female Genital Mutilation: what are the implications?

In November 2015, President Yahya Jammeh of the Gambia banned, effective immediately, the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in the Gambia. This pronouncement was made as part of activities to mark the 16 days of Activism against Gender Based Violence for 2015. The ban follows over 30 years of efforts to end FGM in the Gambia by various organisations, and was received with much support by Gambians.

FGM comprises all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. The practice, beyond being painful and traumatic, can result in excessive bleeding, leading to death in the short term. In the long term, women who have been cut can experience urinary tract infections, infertility, and complications in childbirth, including increased risk of neonatal deaths. Women and girls who have been cut can also suffer from long-term psychological trauma including low self-esteem, anxiety, severe depression and psychosomatic illnesses. In addition to the physical and psychological effects of FGM, the practice is a violation of the right to health and bodily integrity of women and girls, and a form of discrimination against women.

In the Gambia, three quarters of women and girls aged 15-49 years have reportedly experienced FGM. The procedure for 85% of these women and girls involved the cutting of and removal of flesh. In addition, 90% of girls were cut before the age of 14, with 55% cut before the age of 5 years. For most of the procedures (96%), the cutting was carried out by traditional circumcisers. As at 2013, over half of the women and girls in the Gambia (65%) supported the continuation of FGM, with 85% of those who supported the continuation of the practice being women and girls who had themselves been cut.

In pronouncing the ban, the Gambian President stated that FGM was not required by Islam, debunking a common belief that the practice was a religious requirement. However, research on FGM in the Gambia shows that the practice of FGM is supported by strong ancestral socio-cultural roots, and probably a lack of knowledge about the health consequences. FGM is also reinforced by peer pressure among women and girls, and the belief that FGM increases ones’ eligibility for marriage and social acceptance. Thus, while the announcement of the ban on FGM in the Gambia is laudable and a positive step towards ending FGM in the Gambia, it does not without further efforts, translate to the end of FGM for women and girls in the country.

The ban of FGM in the Gambia expands the space for discussion on the passing and implementation of laws against not just FGM, but other forms of gender based violence. It provides impetus for increased advocacy by civil society organisations (CSOs) against the practice of FGM and other forms of gender based violence, working with the media, legal practitioners, law enforcement personnel, and with women, girls, men and boys. For this to be effective, stakeholders across various levels, in both rural and urban areas of the Gambia, need to engage in discussions about the effects of FGM on women and girls and the community at large.

However, the pronouncement of the ban on its own is only an intention. For the ban to be beneficial to women and girls in the Gambia, it requires legal backing. In passing a law against FGM in the Gambia though, contextual realities need to be considered. For instance, a law criminalising FGM could result in pushing traditional circumcisers to continue their practice underground. Such possibilities need to be taken into consideration and steps taken to prevent this.

Adequate sensitisation about the ban of FGM, and the reasons behind the ban should be carried out among traditional circumcisers. Additionally, alternative sources of income for traditional circumcisers need to be explored. Traditional circumcisers can also be trained to provide information about the ban, and subsequently the law, as well as the effects of FGM in local communities, thus helping to stop the practice.

Women and girls in the Gambia also need to be made aware of the ban on FGM, as well as the health effects of the practice. This is imperative as the practice is mostly supported and reinforced by women and girls. Thus, involving women and girls in the implementation of the ban against FGM in the Gambia will go a long way to support the effectiveness of the ban, and prevent future generations of girls from being cut. In addition, men and boys, could use their influence to make decisions that support the ban of FGM in families and communities.

The ban of FGM in the Gambia by President Yahya Jammeh is a step in the right direction. However, it calls for more efforts of advocacy across levels towards the passing and implementation of a law, and other interventions, to support this pronouncement. It is an opportunity for CSOs in the Gambia to, leveraging on the amount of support the ban of FGM has garnered, further push for a law to end FGM and other forms of gender based violence in the country. This law, in addition to community-based interventions, could facilitate an end to the violation of the rights of Gambian women and girls. We look ahead, hopeful for future developments towards women’s empowerment in the Gambia as a result of the announcement of this ban.

By Imaobong Akpan, Independent consultant, Nigeria

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