Exploring The Gambia’s attempt to reverse its ban on FGM and how the ritual cutting impacts women worldwide

By Fatou Ferraro Mboup

Published Apr 14, 2024 at 09:00 AM

Reading time: 5 minutes

Content warning: Description of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)

In 2015, the Gambian assembly achieved a significant milestone by passing the Women’s (Amendment) Act of 2015, criminalising Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and imposing a punishment of up to three years in prison. However, a recent development, on 18 March 2024, saw politicians voting 42 to 4 in favour of advancing a controversial new bill that, if passed, would repeal this landmark FGM ban. This decision has sparked widespread concern and condemnation from rights organisations and activists as it risks reversing years of progress and threatens to tarnish The Gambia’s human rights record.

Unfortunately, it’s no surprise that a bunch of men thought it was a great idea to lift the ban on FGM. After all, it’s not their bodies being subjected to one of the most agonising tortures known to humankind.

Furthermore, it is inaccurate and irresponsible to presume that female genital mutilation (FGM) is limited to African nations. The truth is, that it is a worldwide problem affecting young women and girls across diverse societal contexts. Throughout this article, we will examine the continuing situation in The Gambia and the proliferation of FGM in Europe.

What is Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)?

FGM comes in four different categories, each more horrific than the last. There’s the clitoridectomy, where parts or all of the clitoris are removed; excision, which involves removing parts of the clitoris and inner labia; infibulation, where the vaginal opening is narrowed by cutting and repositioning the labia; and other barbaric procedures such as pricking, piercing, cutting, scraping, or burning the genital area.

Over 230 million women around the world are believed to have undergone such procedures, with an estimated 4 million girls at risk of undergoing these procedures annually. The practice typically starts as early as 9 months old to 3 years old and can continue up to the age of 14.

@freeda_en

Female Genital Mutilation affects over 200 million people around the world and young girls are contracting serious infections, diseases, even dying from this form of child abuse. #Freeda #InternationalDayOfZeroToleranceForFemaleGenitalMutilation #FGM #FemaleGenitalMutilation #Awareness

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Importantly, FGM isn’t performed by trained medical professionals, it’s often carried out by traditional circumcisers using crude tools like knives, scissors, or razor blades, without any anaesthesia or antiseptics. And let’s not forget, it’s often done without the girl’s consent. Indeed victims of FGM are often forcibly restrained. Significantly, there are no medical benefits to it. However, the consequences? A lifetime of pain, infections, infertility, incontinence, depression, and difficulties during childbirth.

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Replying to @rainstormonmyhappiness

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FGM can also make sex excruciatingly painful and reduce sexual desire, a condition often referred to as Hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD). It’s a nightmare that no woman should ever have to endure, yet here we are, debating whether or not to legalise this barbarity again.

@gardenof.peace

Part 3- Trigger Warning ⚠️ Birth & FGM #xyzbca #uk #somalitiktok #fgm #fyp #uktiktok #fgmstopshere #femalecircumsicion #survivorsendfgm #genzendsfgm #periods #birth

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Almameh Gibba, the legislator who introduced the controversial Gambian bill, argued during the debate that the ban violated citizens’ rights to practise their culture and religion. The politician emphasised that the new proposed legislation seeks to uphold religious loyalty and safeguard cultural norms and values. The Islamic Council, The Gambia’s leading Muslim organisation further asserted the practice’s purported connection to Islamic tradition, stating: “The practice was not just a merely inherited custom but one of the virtues of Islam.”

However, activists and rights organisations strongly oppose this stance, asserting that the suggested legislation undermines the fundamental rights and well-being of women and girls.

Michèle Eken, a senior researcher at Amnesty International’s West and Central Africa office, emphasised the dangerous precedent that the bill would set for women’s rights and urged parliament to vote against it.

“It is very disappointing that after the long fight Gambian activists put up to advance women’s rights, parliament is preparing to consider this backward move. Female genital mutilation infringes on girls’ and women’s right to health and bodily integrity. The Gambian government needs to address the root causes and drivers of FGM and implement comprehensive policies for women and girls’ empowerment to claim and exercise their human rights,” Eken continued.

Divya Srinivasan, from Women’s rights organisation Equality Now, stated: “There’s the inherent risk that this is just the first step and it could lead to the rollback of other rights such as the law on child marriage… And not just in Gambia but in the region as a whole.”

Interestingly, there is no inherent correlation between FGM and Islam. There is no mention of the practice in the Holy Quran, nor is there any consensus or legal ruling on it. Additionally, there are no accepted analogies that support FGM within Islamic teachings.

The proposed legislation to lift the ban on FGM represents a significant setback in the fight against this dangerous practice.

Just to put things in perspective, new data reveals a troubling increase of 15 per cent in the number of girls and women subjected to FGM over the past eight years. According to figures released by the UN children’s agency, Unicef, the current tally of those affected exceeds 230 million, compared to 200 million reported in 2016.

Unicef executive director Catherine Russell emphasised the concerning trend of girls undergoing FGM at younger ages. “Female genital mutilation harms girls’ bodies, dims their futures, and endangers their lives,” Russell stated. “We’re also seeing a worrying trend that more girls are subjected to the practice at younger ages, many before their fifth birthday. That further reduces the window to intervene. We need to strengthen the efforts to end this harmful practice,” the expert continued.

Female Genital Mutilation around the world

Sadly, the repercussions of FGM extend well beyond The Gambia’s borders. As we grapple with this urgent issue, it’s crucial to acknowledge its pervasive presence, even in regions far from its cultural origins.

For instance, in Europe, and particularly in the UK, the prevalence of FGM is shockingly high, with over 137,000 reported cases of women subjected to this practice from a very young age. Additionally, it is alarming to note that 60,000 girls under 15 years old are currently at risk, highlighting the grave extent of the problem and the vulnerability of young girls to this harmful practice.

Each case represents a story of pain, trauma, and lifelong consequences for the affected individuals, underscoring the imperative for concerted efforts to protect the rights and well-being of women and girls at risk of FGM.

SCREENSHOT sat down with Victoria Kinkaid, a junior doctor specialising in women’s health and a graduate of the University of Aberdeen. Alongside her mentor, Kinkaid has initiated efforts to raise awareness among frontline professionals about their mandatory reporting obligations concerning FGM. This collaboration led to the development of a 4-week free FutureLearn course in partnership with the University of Aberdeen, drawing enrollment from over 450 students.

When I asked Kinkaid what her thoughts were regarding the recent efforts from politicians to overturn the ban she told me: “We need to show solidarity with campaigners who are working to protect the law, educate others in our community on the importance of the ban, and support grassroots organisations that are working on the End FGM movement in their community. Ending FGM requires a multisectoral approach, therefore everyone needs to be involved, and therefore educated on FGM! Hence why we at the FGM Education Project are so passionate about educating frontline professionals on FGM and particularly their mandatory reporting duties here in the UK. We cannot remain complacent.”

The proposed repeal of the FGM ban in The Gambia threatens to undermine decades of progress in promoting gender equality, human rights, and public health. Lawmakers must prioritise the rights and safety of women and girls by rejecting this regressive legislation and reaffirming their commitment to ending FGM and all forms of gender-based violence.

As a woman who has sat with numerous victims of FGM, the news of this new bill fills me with sadness and outrage. This piece is a cry for justice for those whose lives have been irreversibly shattered, for the young women robbed of their autonomy and the joy of intimacy.

We must act now, with unwavering determination, to denounce this barbaric practice for what it truly is: a heinous form of torture aimed at stripping women of their freedom, their dignity, and their humanity. We cannot allow the clock to turn back on decades of progress in the fight for gender equality, human rights, and public health.

Lawmakers must hear our voices, reject this regressive legislation, and reaffirm their commitment to ending FGM and all forms of gender-based violence for women in The Gambia and around the world.

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