FGM ban in the Gambia under threat as calls grow to repeal law | Global developm…

Political and religious leaders in the Gambia are threatening to introduce a bill to decriminalise female genital mutilation, eight years after the practice was outlawed.

Members of the country’s national assembly have backed a proposal for the 2015 law to be scrapped while the Supreme Islamic Council has issued a fatwa condemning anyone who denounces the practice and calling for the government to reconsider the legislation.

Activists and civil society organisations said the move would be hugely regressive. “[The] Gambia took a bold step in 2015 towards eradicating FGM, so for us to go back after eight years and start again would have very, very big implications for the country,” said Fallou Sowe, national coordinator of the civil society organisation Network Against Gender-based Violence.

Almost three-quarters of women (73%) aged between 15 and 49 have undergone FGM, according to the country’s demographic health survey 2019-20, and almost two-thirds (65%) were cut before they were five.

FGM involves the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, which can have serious long-term health consequences, including infertility. The practice is considered a violation of women’s and girls’ human rights and in 2012 the UN passed a resolution to ban it. FGM is still practised in about 30 countries in Africa and the Middle East.

The procedure is usually performed by female cutters for cultural and religious reasons. In some communities it is a prerequisite for marriage.

Under the current law in the Gambia, a person convicted of performing FGM faces up to three years in prison, a fine of 50,000 dalasi (£622), or both. Where FGM leads to death, the perpetrator could face life imprisonment.

Debate began in late August after three women were convicted of FGM in the Central River region – the first prosecution under the 2015 law – and ordered to pay a fine of 15,000 dalasi or spend a year in jail.

A few days later, an Islamic cleric paid the fines and encouraged Gambians to continue to practise FGM. The issue was then debated at the national assembly in September, where there were calls to repeal the law.

Fatou Baldeh, a survivor of FGM and founder of Women in Liberation and Leadership, a Gambian civil society organisation, said she was already seeing the impact. In the past couple of weeks, she and her team have been chased out of three communities by people accusing them of “challenging our own cultures, norms and religion”, she said.

“We had broken the culture of silence on FGM,” she said. “We’ve moved backwards … Huge damage has already been done because of the statements issued by the Islamic Supreme Council saying FGM is Islamic.”

Baldeh fears that if the law on FGM is repealed, other laws protecting women and girls, such as the one forbidding marriage under 18, may be targeted.

Ex-practitioners of FGM take part in a Dropping of the Knife ceremony in the Gambia. Photograph: UNFPA

The impact will be felt in the wider region, she added. “Other countries might use this tragic experience as a way to challenge their countries not to pass laws that protect women against harmful traditional practices,” she said.

In neighbouring Sierra Leone, where 83% of women aged 15 to 49 have undergone FGM, the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa and a coalition of 26 feminist movement organisations recently filed two legal cases against the government to compel ministers to enact a law.

Mama Jubi, who used to cut girls in her community in the Gambia’s Central River region, stopped practising in 2021 when she discovered it was not a religious obligation. “I know it is not Islam. Not all Islamic scholars accept this as a religious practice,” she said. “If anybody feels sympathy for their fellow human beings they need to stop.

“It’s painful … I will keep telling others about the consequences of this practice. I’ve abandoned it and I will never tell anybody to practise it.”

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