In the Female Genital Mutilation Debate, Gambia’s Traditions Clash With Women’s Rights

Lawmakers are deciding whether to repeal a 2015 law against the practice

In the Female Genital Mutilation Debate, Gambia’s Traditions Clash With Women’s Rights
An anti-FGM protester stands outside Gambia’s National Assembly in Banjul in March 2024. (Muhamadou Bittaye/AFP via Getty Images)

In January 2023, while on a routine monitoring trip in the Central River region of Gambia, Momodou Keita, a community-based facilitator and coordinator with the Gambia Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children (GAMCOTRAP), was tipped off that a woman was cutting (the colloquial term used for the procedure of female genital mutilation, or FGM) eight young girls in the village of Bakadagi-Mandinka. The children were from 4 months to 1 year old.

In a press release, GAMCOTRAP said that when Keita arrived at the compound of Mba Yassin Fatty, the woman accused of cutting the infant girls, he found that three of the eight children had been cut. In August, Fatty and the two mothers whose daughters were cut were found guilty of violating the 2015 anti-FGM law. Each woman was sentenced to one year in prison and fined 15,000 Gambian dalasi, the equivalent of $250.

News of the women’s convictions was met with mixed reactions. Activists and organizations against FGM expressed concerns over the leniency of the sentence and fine but welcomed the conviction as it was the first of its kind since the implementation of the law.

Meanwhile, Gambian religious leaders decried the arrest of these women. One of the most prominent religious leaders in the country, Imam Abdoulie Fatty (no relation to Mba Yassin Fatty), went as far as paying their fines and used this moment to continue his yearslong campaign to repeal the ban. He believes that an attack on FGM is an attack on Islam, and in a 2021 sermon, he accused anti-FGM organizations of spreading falsehoods about the practice.

There has been an ongoing and controversial debate over whether FGM is an Islamic practice. Its exact origins aren’t known, but FGM predates Islam and Christianity, and some researchers have traced it back to ancient Egypt. And while today FGM is mostly prevalent in African Muslim communities, it has been practiced in animist and Christian communities around the world, despite not being mentioned in the Bible. Cases of FGM have been found in the United States, such as in Kentucky, where in 2019, an American woman from a white Christian community reported that her parents subjected her to the practice when she was a child.

FGM also isn’t cited in the Quran, but because a few hadiths (sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad) mention “female circumcision,” without defining the term, some Islamic religious authorities have used this to argue in favor of the practice. However, a body of scholarly research on the meaning and authenticity of such hadiths undermines this view. Moreover, in recent years, Muslim-majority countries have issued several fatwas (legal opinions or decrees handed down by an Islamic religious leader) that are firmly opposed to FGM. In 2007, for example, Egypt’s Al-Azhar Islamic Research Academy, the Sunni Muslim world’s foremost religious institution, banned the practice after a 12-year-old girl died as a result of the procedure, saying that it was un-Islamic.

In contrast, the Gambia Supreme Islamic Council issued its own fatwa in March, stating that “female circumcision … is one of the virtues of Islam” and called for the government to “reconsider the law” criminalizing it.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines FGM as “all procedures that involve the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” FGM has been practiced in traditional groups and communities throughout the African continent as part of cultural and religious customs. In Gambia, where more than 96% of the population is Muslim, several ethnic groups have adopted FGM, with the highest rates occurring among the Bambara (a subgroup of the Mande), the Fula, the Jola/Karoninka, the Mandinka/Jahanke and the Serahule (Soninke), according to a 2015 country profile report by the FGM/C Research Initiative. These groups are also primarily Muslim.

The terminology used for this practice has changed over the years. When it first attracted international attention, it was referred to as “female circumcision,” but following criticism that this creates an inaccurate parallel to male circumcision — an entirely different procedure with different health outcomes and effects — the term “mutilation” was adopted to emphasize the gravity of the procedure.

From 1999 to 2017, Gambia was led by Yahya Jammeh, an autocrat who, for most of his tenure, was a strong supporter of FGM. In a speech given in January 1999, he called those who oppose the practice “enemies of Islam.” In 2015, however — and to the surprise of many — Jammeh approved the Women’s (Amendment) Act, adding sections 32A and 32B to the Women’s Act 2010, criminalizing female genital mutilation and making it a punishable offense of up to three years in prison plus a fine for anyone who performs, promotes, aids or abets the practice.

The original Women’s Act 2010 did not refer to FGM directly but placed an obligation on the government to protect women and girls from violence and harm, as well as their right to health and dignity. The Women’s (Amendment) Act 2015 was the first time that FGM was addressed as a harmful practice. Activists and nongovernmental organizations hailed the new law for providing a framework to discuss the harms of FGM in communities where such conversations have been relatively taboo.

But the criminalization of what most of the population sees as part of cultural and religious customs was also met with resistance, most notably from people like Abdoulie Fatty. In a country like Gambia, where certain traditions are ingrained in the fabric of society, a law that was intended to protect the rights of women and girls was always at risk.

In September 2023, a month after the women of Bakadagi-Mandinka were convicted and debates ignited over the 2015 ban, National Assembly member Sulayman Saho raised the issue of FGM at a meeting, telling New Lines that all he intended to do was “call for a dialogue, for people and stakeholders to sit down and discuss the matter.”

This past March, however, lawmaker Almameh Gibba introduced a new bill in the National Assembly proposing the reversal of the 2015 act. It has now passed the second reading and is expected to go to a final vote during the Second Ordinary Session of the National Assembly, which begins on June 24. If the bill passes, Gambia will be the first country in the world to overturn a ban on FGM.

Several anti-FGM activists and organizations view this as a watershed moment, harmful to the rights of women and girls not only in Gambia but also across the continent.

As debates around FGM became contentious, Saho says he was worried that violence would erupt and more problems would follow. “I called for a national dialogue on it. I did not call for a repeal at the time,” he clarifies. But when asked whether he supports this new bill, Saho says that he does. “I’m supporting the bill for a ban to be lifted simply for the reason that the majority of Gambian people are cultural people,” he explains. In his words, the ban was “created in a rush and [was] not well calculated.”

According to Saho, the bill resulted from a top-down decision, making it difficult to implement.

“The ban was made during the time of the former president, whom we call a dictator,” Saho says. “He imposed this bill on us, and the people were not involved in its making.”

In 2016, just a few months after the passage of the act, it was reported that a 5-month-old baby died following an FGM procedure in the Kiang West village of Sankandi after not receiving medical attention despite bleeding profusely. Two women, the child’s grandmother and the local FGM practitioner, were charged and arrested. But due to a “lack of evidence,” says Satang Nabaneh, a Gambian legal scholar and human rights practitioner, the charges were dropped.

“At the prosecution level, there was little to nothing happening [until 2023],” Nabaneh tells New Lines. Nabaneh says that even with the law in place, there have been significant limitations in enforcing it. Given the difficulties of working within such a system, she wasn’t particularly surprised by the news of the bill.

“Within the Gambian context, how do you even build the capacity, but also change the mindset of the people that are actually supposed to implement a law?” she asks. Nabaneh says that having the FGM law in place is important because it gives human rights activists a framework to work within and pushes the government to adhere to its human rights obligations. But, she adds, it’s quite another for the government to ensure it’s being put into practice. “I’ve had several stories where people go and report to a police station, and they were just told that it was a family matter and that they should just go,” Nabaneh explains. In this context, the mechanisms for implementation are limited, and law enforcement’s obligations and responsibilities to survivors are almost nonexistent.

What does it say about a government’s responsibility to protect the well-being of its women and girls when a bill is put forward proposing that a ban be overturned because it interferes with certain traditions? What is it about FGM that continues to stir debate, despite evidence and reports of its negative effects on sexual and reproductive health?

Dr. Wisal Ahmed, a public health specialist who has been working as the global coordinator for the UNFPA-UNICEF joint program for the elimination of FGM, says there are many factors to explain why the practice persists. “The reasons vary by country and even by community,” she explains. It’s often performed by traditional practitioners, with the increasing involvement of health workers, particularly in countries like Egypt and Sudan, and has become a social norm. In addition to the religious conventions, “some believe that FGM controls the sexual drive, that it’s done to maintain what is called ‘family-owned’ virginity, or even as a rite of passage to womanhood,” Ahmed says.

According to Adriana Kaplan, a professor of medical anthropology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, FGM has become part of the gender and ethnic identity of the women in many of these communities. “They believe that a cut woman is more pure than an uncut woman,” she says. Kaplan is also the director of the NGO Wassu Gambia Kafo and has been working on sexual and reproductive health in Gambia since 1989. Kaplan says that some believe that a woman who has not gone through FGM can contaminate things such as food because of her perceived impurity.

“An uncut woman is believed to be cooking ‘haram’ [an Arabic term that means ‘forbidden’] food,” she explains.

A recent report by UNICEF titled “Female Genital Mutilation: A Global Concern” states that FGM is performed in about 28 countries in Africa, where over 144 million women and girls have been subjected to the practice. As Ahmed explains, “The new data that was released by UNICEF shows that there is an increasing trend of having FGM performed on girls below the age of 5 years.”

Whether it is performed at age 5 or 15, research has shown that FGM doesn’t have any health benefits. Data from the WHO and UNICEF have identified severe pain, excessive bleeding, shock, infections, urinary and sexual health problems, childbirth complications and even death as some of the short- and long-term effects.

Saho says that he won’t “dispute or contest” data from organizations like the WHO but questions whether statistics truly represent what is happening in Gambia.

“I want to see my people in that data,” he says. “If I see Gambia, maybe I can be convinced, but I don’t want you to represent Gambia for Somalia, for example.”

Despite what Saho claims, there is specific data and research on Gambia. The recent UNICEF report states that in Gambia, 73% of girls and women aged 15 to 49 have undergone the procedure and that it’s one of the countries that has shown little to no progress in getting communities to completely abandon the practice.

For women like Fatou Baldeh, a Gambian FGM survivor who grew up in a community where the practice continued because of the ingrained culture of silence, it was considered abnormal not to have been cut. “Growing up, I remember one family who moved into our neighborhood and they were always seen as different,” she tells New Lines. “And now that I can reflect on this and bring that connection, a lot of the negative myths and stories that were going around about that family was because they didn’t practice FGM.”

In Baldeh’s community, everybody knew who was cut and who wasn’t cut, but nobody actually spoke about it. She remembers being cut at the age of 8 and that it was “upsetting, shocking and painful.” But like all the girls who went through it before her, she was told never to discuss what happened to her.

The first time Baldeh heard of the term “female genital mutilation,” she was attending university in the U.K., where she was researching solutions to high maternal mortality rates in Gambia. At the time, Baldeh couldn’t reconcile the fact that what she was hearing was similar to what she went through as a young girl.

“I remember kind of speaking up and saying that we do practice something similar, but that’s not violence against women,” Baldeh explains. “At the beginning, I was upset that I was sitting in a classroom full of white people telling me that what happened to me was violence against women.”

It wasn’t until she decided to write her dissertation on FGM and its effects on pregnancy that she began to see a pattern emerge from her conversations with immigrant women in the U.K. who were FGM survivors. “There were certain things that the women were telling me that it felt like they were talking about me,” she says. From repeated infections to pain and difficulty during sex and problems during labor and childbirth, FGM survivors tend to experience these outcomes at higher rates. During childbirth, women who went through FGM are more likely to require cesarean sections or an episiotomy (a surgical cut made at the opening of the vagina during childbirth) as well as suffer postpartum hemorrhage.

The conversations Baldeh was having with these women broke the silence that she had lived with for so long. She started speaking with close friends, family and other women who underwent FGM. “Most of the problems that women face as survivors of FGM are similar, so in a community where almost every woman is cut, they think that this is part of a being woman instead of associating it with something that happened to them as a child.”

Through her organization Women in Liberation & Leadership (WILL), Baldeh challenges the culture of silence in which discussing this practice is controversial. But with the advancement of this recent bill, anxiety levels are high. “Within our communities, we are seeing that there is a huge support to repeal the [2015] law,” she says.

Vocal support for the new bill isn’t just coming from politicians like Saho and Gibba, but also from the country’s Muslim leaders. As soon as the bill was introduced this spring, Abdoulie Fatty, the imam, doubled down on his support for the repeal of the ban. While speaking with journalists, he stated that they are “here to restore female circumcision,” implying that there is a difference between circumcision and mutilation and comparing the cutting of women and girls to male circumcision. In Islamic countries and communities worldwide, male circumcision is widely practiced.

Saho himself says that he is not convinced that mutilation happens in Gambia. “We support female circumcision where you cut the tip part of the clitoris and not the totality,” he explains. But contrary to what he tells New Lines, research has shown that the most common type of FGM procedure that occurs in Gambia involves removing the entire external female genitalia.

As stated by the Ontario Human Rights Commission, using the term “circumcision” instead of “mutilation” makes FGM — inaccurately — a practice comparable to male circumcision, whereby only the foreskin of penis is removed, despite the fact that “the degree of excision and trauma involved in FGM is generally much more extensive, including the actual removal of genital organs.”

For survivors of FGM in Gambia, watching members of Parliament advance the repeal bill was more than they could have imagined. “I remember the day that the bill was tabled. When we were at the Parliament, the minute the reading started, women started breaking down,” Baldeh says. “We were sitting there listening to these men, who would never know what it feels like to be a woman who went through FGM, standing and telling us FGM doesn’t affect us.” One of the male legislators who spoke said that he doesn’t understand what “they are on about,” that FGM isn’t painful and is just like “taking a nail cutter and clipping a nail.”

Even with widely available research and data, efforts to eliminate the practice are seen as a Western imposition and a criticism of local traditions and cultures.

According to Nafisa Binte Shafique, the UNICEF representative in Gambia, if the repeal bill goes through, it will have a ripple effect regionally and globally. “There are many countries who will be lining up and taking the Gambia as an example,” she explains. And this isn’t just limited to Muslim-majority countries; places where Christianity is the dominant religion and FGM is still practiced are also at risk. “They’re using religion, but it is essentially the same patriarchal norm of wanting to control,” Shafique says.

Another possible repercussion is an increase in cross-border FGM procedures. “A number of different countries who are still practicing it but have a law in place will come to the Gambia and do it because there will be no law to resist that,” Shafique says. Cross-border FGM procedures aren’t entirely new, as seen in countries like Kenya, where FGM is illegal, but girls are reportedly being taken to places such as Uganda, Tanzania, Somalia and Ethiopia for the procedure. A repeal of the ban could incentivize communities living in Senegal near the Gambia border to travel into the country to have their girls undergo the procedure.

There are also concerns that going after anti-FGM laws is just the tip of the iceberg. “This bill will have horrible implications on women and girl’s rights,” Shafique explains. “If they succeed, then next will be child marriage, and then sexual and gender-based violence laws. It will be a huge rollback on the gains that this country has made.”

A regression in the safety and protection of women has been a worrisome trend across the continent. Kenya has seen a surge in femicides and gender-based violence, and amid the ongoing war in Sudan, sexual violence is used as a weapon of war. In Gambia, the culture of silence around FGM is resurfacing.

“Because of this conversation, that curtain has been propped again, where communities are like, ‘We don’t want to talk to you’ because the conversation has painted people who advocate against FGM as anti-Islamic,” Baldeh explains. Just a few months ago, even before the bill was put forward, Baldeh’s organization was kicked out of a community for wanting to talk about the practice. “Now we are restrategizing because we know the risk of what is going to happen if we are to go and face these people,” she says.

It’s hard to predict what the results of the vote in June will be, but ultimately it comes down to a choice between the safety and protection of Gambian women and girls and the preservation of religious and cultural tradition. Of course tradition isn’t always static; it can change and adapt. And if parts of it are shown to cause harm, why not do away with those specific aspects? One of the guarantees of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, also known as the Maputo Protocol, which went into effect in 2005, was to end harmful traditional practices such as FGM. Gambia is one of 42 countries that signed and ratified it.

“We are a country that is taking pride in improving human rights and women’s rights,” Baldeh says. “If we’re improving women’s human rights, we must also incorporate women’s rights in that angle as well.”

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