The Gambia surprised itself and the world on 23 November 2015 when it announced an executive ban on the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) just days before the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
FGM involves the ritual of removing of some or all of the external female genitalia for non-medical reasons. It is usually carried out using a blade, with or without anaesthesia. The practice has no health benefits and can come with a range of painful complications. Nineteen countries in Africa have outlawed FGM.
The United Nations general assembly set aside 25 November every year to mark the beginning of a 16-day period of activism on gender-based violence.
Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, speaking at a political rally in his home village of Kanilai, announced an executive order banning of the practice in The Gambia with immediate effect. He said:
Female circumcision is banned in The Gambia from Kartong [a coastal village in south-western Gambia on the border with Senegal] to Koina [a village in the southern bank of the Gambia river]. For 21 years, I have been researching from the Qur’an and consulting religious leaders whether female circumcision is mentioned in the Qur’an but I did not find it there.
The world media reverberated with the news in a somewhat jubilant mood, paying tributes to decades of advocacy by feminists and human rights activists. Despite the presidential ban, however, there is no law in the country that prohibits the practice, and some observers cautioned against declaring the fight over just yet.
‘Justification along cultural, traditional and religious lines’
According to a Unicef report, Gambian Muslim clerics are divided on FGM in a country where over 90 percent of the population is Muslim. Some argue that it is an optional, but recommendable religious practice (sunnah); however, FGM predates Islam, and people of other faiths throughout Africa also perform the “cut”, pointing to a strong cultural element in the practice.
FGM is pervasive in the Gambia with figures suggesting that over 70 percent of women experience one form of FGM or another. For more than two decades, activism and advocacy efforts have had little effect, especially at the policy level. Efforts to introduce an anti-FGM legislation in the tiny West African country had so far met stiff resistance with politicians declining even to meet civil society groups on the subject.
Below is a documentary, Cutting the Womanhood, about FGM in the Gambia:
Modou Joof, a Gambian journalist and blogger who has covered FGM and other human rights related issues, reacted to the news:
This could be the beginning of show of political will to ban fgm – which has been lacking according to campaigners.
The Girls Agenda, one of the leading community-based organisations advocating for women and girls rights, posted this on their Facebook page:
Our grassroots approach in raising awareness and demanding for policies, laws, and practices that empower and recognise the rights of women and girls will continue. We're committed to ending all forms of violence ranging from FGM, child marriage, intimate partner violence to political isolation while giving girls the best tools of communications, negotiations and assertiveness skills they need in order to thrive.
In a long but analytical piece on the announcement, the Linguere blog had this to say:
Increasing awareness of the public on the dangers of FGM and its effects on girls and women is the sure way to changing attitudes and influencing an abandonment of the practice. FGM is a deeply-rooted culture and its practice has prevailed with a justification along cultural, traditional and religious lines. As with many other cultural and traditional practices, there needs to be a shift in perception of the practice, for abandonment to become a true reality.
‘Jammeh is prone to making outlandish, bizarre, and one-off statements’
However, the Robert F Kennedy Human Rights center cautioned against excitement, arguing that President Jammeh is known for making outlandish statements:
The Gambia was thrust into the spotlight this week after the country’s longtime president, Yahya Jammeh, announced a ban on female genital mutilation (FGM). This pronouncement surprised many, especially after the country’s National Assembly rejected a similar proposal in March of this year, claiming that Gambians “were not ready.” …Lost in all the celebrations, particularly on social media, is the fact that FGM is not banned in The Gambia, at least not yet. There is no enforceable law on the books. And recall that Jammeh is prone to making outlandish, bizarre, and one-off statements. The last time Jammeh actually lived up to a promise was when he publicly vowed to summarily execute death row inmates, which was carried out in August 2012.
The Gambia is already a state party and signatory to many international and regional human rights instruments that are not in line with harmful traditional practices such as FGM. The country is a signatory to the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Convention on the Rights of Children, African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights, and the Maputo Protocol, among others. It is necessary to harmonise local regulations to these international standards.
The November 23 executive pronouncement should be a beginning, not an end in itself. But for now, while activists may breathe some sighs of relief, the true winners are the hundreds if not thousands of Gambian girls at risk of FGM annually.