‘Over my dead body’, say Gambian mothers amid efforts to lift FGM ban

As politicians take steps to repeal a law criminalising female circumcision, women stand firm to shield the next generation from the harmful practice.

Women picketed outside the Gambian parliament in Serrekunda while legislators voted to reverse a ban on female genital mutilation [File: Hadim Thomas-Safe Hands for Girls via AP]By Kaddy JawoPublished On 28 Mar 202428 Mar 2024

*Names changed to maintain privacy.

Banjul, The Gambia – Fatou* was barely a year old when she underwent female circumcision, the practice also called female genital mutilation that rights groups condemn as a form of abuse.

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Today the 29-year-old from Bundung, a town on the outskirts of The Gambian capital Banjul, says she will shield her baby daughter from the same fate that scarred her, even as parliament takes steps toward lifting a ban on FGM.

Sitting in her kitchen preparing suhoor, the early morning meal before the start of the fasting day in the Muslim month of Ramadan, Fatou shared the story of the pain and lasting trauma she says FGM inflicted.

“When I got married, my husband and I faced days of agony,” she said, her words heavy with the weight of memory. “We could not consummate our marriage because I was sealed.”

That was just part of the torment it brought into her life. She finally fell pregnant, but then faced immense difficulty giving birth to their nine-month-old.

Standing firmly by Fatou’s side, her husband is a beacon of support, echoing his wife’s determination to break the cycle of suffering. But not all women have been as fortunate.

Sarata* is a 35-year-old mother of two daughters – a three-year-old and a 15-month-old. Because of her circumcision, childbirth was also a harrowing experience. Watching the pain she went through made her husband a vocal voice against FGM.

But while Sarata was pregnant with their second child in 2022, her husband died tragically in a road accident, leaving her to raise their daughters and fight for their future by herself.

In the makeshift shop she runs in Brufut, a village in the West Coast Region, 23km from Banjul, Sarata talked about the lasting consequences FGM has had on her life.

“What do they want?” she asked, her voice trembling in anguish. “Men, supporters of this barbaric practice, what do they seek to gain?” she continued, her children playing near the detergents, brooms and secondhand goods she had on display.

“I lost my husband, but not his resolve against FGM. We swore to protect our girls, but if the ban is lifted …” her voice faltered, before rising with newfound strength. “Over my dead body will I let them suffer as I did.”

Gambians protest to keep a law criminalising FGM from being repealed [File: Malick Njie/Reuters]

Defending girls’ rights

In 2015, the Gambian parliament took the historic step to pass the Women’s (Amendment) Act of 2015, which criminalised FGM and made it punishable by up to three years in prison – a significant shift after years of advocacy.

But recently, on March 18, politicians voted 42 to 4 to advance a controversial new bill which would repeal the landmark FGM ban if it passes following further consultation and expert opinion from specialised government ministries.

Almameh Gibba, the legislator who introduced the bill, argued that the ban violated citizens’ rights to practise their culture and religion. “The bill seeks to uphold religious loyalty and safeguard cultural norms and values,” he said.

However, rights organisations say the proposed legislation reverses years of progress and risks damaging the country’s human rights record.

“We are completely, and without reservation, opposed to the practice of any form of FGM,” said Jama Jack, the co-founder of Think Young Women (TYW), a leading female-led non-profit organisation.

For more than a decade, TYW has engaged communities, championed sensitisation efforts, and empowered youth advocates to combat FGM – even after the law passed in 2015.

The NGO sees the proposed repeal of the law as a betrayal of women and girls.

“Repealing the law exposes all these girls to a real threat of being deceived, taken to cutters, mutilated, and then left to deal with the consequences on their physical and mental health,” Jack said.

“Ensuring that the law banning FGM remains will send a strong signal that the Gambian government is committed to its duty to protect all citizens and will not put the interests of a few over the safety of a majority.”

Women’s rights campaigners emphasise the need to educate men about the consequences of FGM, as many still support the practice [File: Malick Njie/Reuters]

Tabou Njie Sarr is another passionate advocate for preserving the FGM ban. As the Women’s Rights Manager at NGO Action Aid, she campaigns against the repeal of the law – emphasising its crucial role in protecting women and girls from harmful traditional practices and violations of human rights. She was among the hundreds of women gathered at the National Assembly when the women’s amendment bill was tabled.

“The Gambia is fulfilling her obligations to the rights of women and girls” by keeping the ban in place, she said, drawing attention to the country’s commitments to international conventions safeguarding women’s rights.

Sarr highlighted the risks posed by FGM, including detrimental effects on sexual and reproductive health and the dangers of untrained circumcisers causing irreparable harm.

To Sarr, education is paramount in combating FGM. She advocates for comprehensive awareness campaigns and emphasises the need to also educate men – who often hold decision-making power within households – about the dire consequences of FGM.

Sarr lamented the lack of understanding among some men, including National Assembly members, who champion the repeal of the FGM law due to their ignorance of its harmful effects.

Lamin Ceesay, a member of the National Assembly representing a constituency where FGM is prevalent, is among those advocating for a repeal of the ban, citing religious and constitutional grounds.

When questioned about why one should prioritise religion over the lived experiences of countless women affected by FGM, Ceesay insisted on proof and data to substantiate their claims that the practice is harmful. “We need statistics to ascertain how this affects them,” he said.

FGM in secret

The Gambia’s Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Welfare has issued a press statement emphasising the country’s progress in combatting FGM since the 1980s.

Although the government supports the ban, it has said it will allow the private members’ bill to follow the due parliamentary process as part of the government’s adherence to democratic principles and the rule of law.

Nevertheless, despite efforts to halt the practice, FGM still affects 73 percent of women aged 15-49 in the country, underlining the continuing challenges.

Even with the law against FGM in place, many in The Gambia continue the practice in secret [File: Malick Njie/Reuters]

Even after the 2015 law went into effect, the practice continues in secrecy, inflicting silent suffering on innocent victims like 34-year-old Sarjo* and her four-year-old daughter.

A single mother from Brikama, one of the largest cities in The Gambia, Sarjo made a solemn promise during childbirth to protect her daughter from such horrors, adamantly refusing to subject her to the practice.

Tragically, her trust was betrayed when her daughter fell victim to FGM without her consent. It happened last year, when Sarjo left her daughter with the child’s father’s family and her paternal grandmother arranged for her to be circumcised.

The anguish and betrayal Sarjo felt when she discovered what happened still haunts her.

“My little girl was told not to tell me or anyone [what happened], so she didn’t. I found out when she had an infection,” she recounted, her voice trembling.

Sarjo went to several police stations to report the matter but said they did not take her case seriously. Once again, she felt betrayed – this time by those entrusted with upholding justice.

When the vote to repeal the FGM ban took place, Sarjo was among the women protesting outside parliament. She also talks to other mothers, educating them about not subjecting their daughters to this harmful practice.

Yet, amid the defiance, there are vocal voices intent on keeping the practice alive.

Support despite the ban

Last August, three women were fined for carrying out FGM on eight infant girls – becoming the first people convicted under the anti-FGM law.

In a controversial move in September, renowned Gambian Islamic leader, Imam Abdoulie Fatty, made headlines by paying the fines of 15,000 dalasi each ($220) for the three convicted women.

The women, including the circumciser Mba-Yasin Fatty, had operated in the FGM-prevalent village of Niani Bakadagi in the Central River Region of the country, despite the ban.

Supporters of a bill aimed at decriminalising FGM see the practice as an important part of their culture [File: Malick Njie/Reuters]

Imam Fatty’s support for FGM – as displayed by his standing with the convicted women – caused outrage among women’s rights advocates and anti-FGM campaigners.

In a widely shared video on social media, he also defiantly declared his intentions to continue advocating for FGM, challenging authorities to intervene.

Despite legislative efforts to criminalise the practice and impose penalties, Imam Fatty remains steadfast in his stance, viewing it as integral to Islamic tradition.

His actions have reignited debates surrounding FGM, highlighting the continuing struggle to eradicate the practice despite legal bans.

The future for Gambian women

After the vote on March 18, the bill seeking to reverse the FGM ban was sent to a parliamentary committee for further scrutiny.

In the committee stage, stakeholders will be engaged, public input collected, and expert opinions sought from ministries including the Ministry of Gender, Ministry of Health and Ministry of Justice. The legislation will then be amended and put to another vote – a process that could last weeks or months.

Meanwhile, the future hangs in the balance for Gambian women and girls.

The Gambia Bar Association (GBA) has strongly opposed the proposed repeal of the 2015 law. According to the GBA, repealing the law would undermine the nation’s commitment to safeguarding the rights of girls and women and would violate international and regional human rights treaties.

“The law remains in force unless and until repealed and should therefore be obeyed,” the GBA said, urging the inspector general of police to enforce it rigorously.

However, rights activists and many survivors of the practice remain concerned.

At her home in Bundung, Fatou gazed at her nine-month-old, seeing a future full of promise and possibility, but one that may now be more at risk.

“I dream of a world where my daughter can grow up without fear,” she whispered, her fingers tracing the outline of her daughter’s tiny hand.

Sarata, too, shares similar fears. She sees the prospect of the law being repealed as a chilling nightmare that casts a dark cloud over the future of Gambian girls.

For her daughters playing beside her, each laugh and smile is a testament to the hope that flickers within them, and a reminder of the reason Sarata is fighting to keep the ban in place: “They are my heart, my soul,” she said.

Source: Al Jazeera