On 24th November the world woke up to news that The Gambia will ban female genital mutilation (FGM). Gambia’s President Yahyah Jammeh made the pronouncement for an FGM ban during his political rally at his home village, Kanilai. According to International newspaper, The Guardian “Jammeh said the ban would come into effect immediately, though it was not clear when the government would draft legislation to enforce it”. In typical Presidential directive style, Jammeh announced the long awaited ban with threats, arrogantly proclaiming that “he, therefore, warned parents, chiefs, Alkalolou and female circumcision practitioners to shun the act or face the consequences.” In the Gambia the same hand that gives, is ever ready to take away, something most Gambians and especially Human Rights activist are accustomed to. This begs the question if the announcement was simply a political ploy to win over female votes or if he’s really interested in the wellbeing of Gambian women? One thing for sure is that the practice will not be eliminated by issuing mere announcements and threats backed with no legislation. Due to the timing of the announcement many activist feel that the announcement is simply a distraction tactic and were quick to highlight that it coincided with the mass arrest of over 30 youths from Kartong, charged for simply protesting against sand mining in their community. The youths of Kartong had questioned the benefit of mineral mining in Kartong, and filed a complaint that unethical mining had resulted in the death of a 12 year old boy soon after Tobaski.
Even though some will argue that the announcement is just a distraction tactic or Political Opportunism, the dangers of FGM to women in The Gambia are well documented in a report by 28 Too Many. According to this report written by experts with up to 35 years’ experience on FGM “There is a slightly higher rate of FGM in rural areas (78.1% women; 45.9% daughters) than in urban areas (74.6% women; 38% daughters). The regional pattern is complex, but it is highest in Basse (99% women, 71.5% daughters) and lowest in Banjul (56.3% women – increased by 11.5% in last 5 years; 24.4% daughters).” This highlights that the trend is actually increasing in the capital city Banjul. With this in mind I’d like to echo The Point Newspapers editorial titled “The FGM ban requires more” highlighting that mere announcements are not the answer to eliminating this inhumane practice.
This article is not intended to downplay the dangers of FGM, the marvellous work of gender activists such as GAMCOTRAP and many others over the years. However it must be clearly stated that Gambia is one of the only countries to announce a ban (with a threat) without any legislative backing or guidance on the penalties that offenders will be charged with. Or as Jammeh so bluntly put it “the consequences that offenders will face”. It’s obvious that the National Assembly Members (Du man Kena) will have no chance but to dance to the whims of the “State house lunatic”. Clearly a legislation will soon be issued by the NAMs, but in a country where citizens are accustomed to enforced disappearances, it’s yet to be seen how well the expected ban will be enforced. Some FGM activist such as Jaha Dukureh are over the moon and took to The Guardian to announce that “The amazing thing is its election season. This could cost the president the election. He put women and girls first, this could negatively affect him. But this shows that he cares more about women that losing people’s votes”. How true those words really are can be debated and discussed based on Jammeh’s track record on how he’s treated Gambian women in the past.
Jammeh’s harsh handling of Fatu Camara (a well-known Gambia Journalist, activist and former employee at the President’s office) is well documented. Although she managed to escape with her life to the United States, history will recall that she was arrested in front of her children and whisked away on trumped up charges by the Gambia’s security forces known as the National Intelligence Agency (NIA). If this does not serve as sufficient warning for the likes of Jaha Dukureh that Jammeh cannot be trusted maybe another similar incident will. The manner in which Jammeh dealt with Sarata Jabbi-Dibba was equally very heart-breaking for any Gambian (man or woman) to imagine. In a video made in collaboration with Amnesty, Sarata bravely detailed her ordeal with the Gambia’s security forces (NIA) for simply doing her job as a journalist and publishing a story. Some of the most heart wrenching details of her episode reads “In the Gambian constitution I had the opportunity for my sentence to be suspended until after I stopped breastfeeding my baby. Going to jail is nothing to me but the only thing I felt about it was sending my baby to jail. When they brought the food to me, I couldn’t eat, you have to take the flies out and as a breastfeeding mother if you don’t eat you can’t breast feed. We Gambians are very unlucky because our president does not care about human rights. In mile two if you go there you will find many people there held for more than ten years.” Of course there are many more women who have suffered the wrath of Jammeh and the aforementioned are just a tip of the iceberg. On the flip side some of his most staunch supporters are women such as Vice President Isatou Njie Saidy and his group of APRC Yai Kompins, to name a few. It seems political activist willing to make a career in the APRC machinery will have a role to play as long as they dance to the tune of His Excellency Sheikh Professor Babili Mansa …. (Oh I forgot all the numerous titles) Alhaji Jemus Junkung Jammeh.
An important point which needs to mention is the argument that “sufficient sensitisation must precede legislation” or has there been sufficient sensitisation to progress legislation? I’ve argued that the practice can only be eliminated with the full support and collaboration of the community as there are a number of misconceptions on FGM as a prescribed religious practice. One commentator took to social media claiming that circumcision was ordained by Abraham for both men and women. On the other hand a well-known Imam (Muslim religious leader) by the name of Imam Baba Leigh declared that the practice “is solely based on cultural tradition and is not found in the Holy Quran or any authentic Hadith of Prophet Muhammad (Sallah Laahu Alaihii Wasallam)”. This highlights some of the misconceptions surrounding FGM and the importance of discrediting such misconceptions cannot be underscored in the cultural fabric of Gambian society.
Finally I would like to leave our dear readers with this question, “What use is an FGM ban when life is not guaranteed in today’s Gambia?” It’s Jammeh’s common practice to give and take with the same hand. Maybe some pro-Jammeh activist will argue that a ban will still be effective in the absence of respect for life and basic human rights. We therefore call on the Jammeh administration to release all prisoners of conscience including Imams and prisoners and respect the 72 hour constitutional requirement, implement a ban in consultation with the Gambian public underpinned with sufficient sensitisation as the pillar of this new legislation. Maybe then his FGM rhetoric will be taken seriously and not seen as a distraction tactic from the real issues facing The Gambia. So far it is my strong belief that the announcement has done nothing to protect vulnerable women and girls that would have to face the practice but simply lulled activist into a false sense of achievement. Now Jammeh can gain some more popular votes and pro-Jammeh activist can claim that there is a superficial ban where nobody can be taken to court and tried for continuing this practice.
1 – The Guardian – The Gambia bans female genital mutilation – http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/nov/24/the-gambia-bans-female-genital-mutilation
2 – The Point – FGM Banned – http://thepoint.gm/africa/gambia/article/fgm-banned
3 – Foroyaa – Kartong community questions the benefit of heavy metal mining – http://www.foroyaa.gm/archives/8168
4 – 28 Too Many Gambia Profile – http://www.28toomany.org/media/file/profile/Gambia_v5_high.pdf
5 – Fatu Camara Video – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bQgSceP2oMo
6 – Sarata Jabbi Dibba video – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oVx8bWEWFSQ
7 – Imam Baba Leigh letter – http://gainako.com/?p=9800
Written By Yusef Taylor