I am a psychology doctor and I founded the organisation, 28 Too Many, which has been active since 2010. It is committed to four different terms towards ending female genital mutilation. The first is research. We do baseline survey in countries in Africa and we have been to nine countries including The Gambia. We also give data at UN level and Diaspora countries such as UK and America and help governments have information upon which they can amend their legislation. We also work with organisations at community and international levels. We also network for everyone to have the right knowledge on FGM in a bid to end the practice.
Tell us about your experience in The Gambia?
We have been researching across The Gambia for a few years now and we are very pleased to be able to launch our new report on arrival here. In The Gambia, prevalence of FGM is quite high and what we found is that it is around 76 percent of women who undergo FGM. Actually, three in four women we will meet have undergone FGM. I think there has been quite a lot of activity over the last few years. Much of the practice is the infibulations type which is having serious impact on girls. FGM accounts for one in ten girls cut in the world in every ten seconds.
Given such frightening statistics, what is your assessment of it and what do you think needs to be done towards ending the practice?
I think the good thing is there is the preparation for a draft bill on FGM [in The Gambia]. We have to get that fully signed at the highest level. I think the other thing is that government has a right to educate people because it is closely associated with child marriage. There is the cultural side of FGM which is closely linked to initiation into adulthood. There are other alternatives that can be used without cutting the girls. We need to see how communities look at women when it comes to initiation into adulthood. We also need to look at the economic empowerment of women especially those who have their income from cutting. We can help them to get their income through alternatives means. We also would like to hear voices being heard as we have been seeing covered in The Standard. This is a practice that has been going on for 2000 years and so it will be difficult to end it in just one generation. We need the voice of men, the voice of survivors, voice of girls who are not cut and parents to help end this practice.
Clearly, there is a divergence of opinion in The Gambia. The conversation on FGM has never been more controversial with many of our opinion leaders like the Imams consistent in their view that the practice is good while others think otherwise. What is your take on this?
Well I studied Islam myself but there is no place in the Quran or any other holy book where FGM is a requirement. There are some weak hadiths that it is a requirement. I don’t think the Imams always know what the practice entails. Most men who come across seeing a video of a girl being cut are actually horrified by what it entails. I think the Quran is very clear on not doing harm which is one of the Islamic beliefs. This is a practice that causes unnecessary harm and brings about unnecessary reproductive health issues. Also, in marital and sexual relationships, they are ruined because of women being in pain. I don’t really think this is what God would want. This is something that should be taken into account. That’s the Islamic stance and I have talked to many Imams in Nigeria and some think it is not an Islamic requirement. People take to be an Islamic requirement but that is not the case. Yet, a cause for concern is that if people have income from something, then it is hard to change from one income generating practice to another. In Nigeria, we teach women to change their source of livelihood from cutting to other income generating practices like soap-making or dressmaking. So, it takes some time in changing practices such as this. This is why the media is important. The radio in the communities should be able to put the message across.
The government is the heavyweight stakeholder in any move towards banning female genital mutilation but it has since shied away from the debate.
Don’t you think government’s taking a backward posture will be a blow to the campaign?
The government is an important stakeholder but they are not the only actors in ending the practice. In our report, we have identified 80 to 90 stakeholders including local and international NGOs, community-based organisations and others. If all of these organisations should work together in engaging the government, I think the government will listen to them. Throughout the ten years that I have been an advocate against FGM, I have seen a massive movement and the pace of change has gone so quickly. People are now reaching that tipping point. We are not there yet but the pace has gone very fast. I have had meetings with government and UN departments and I think they are open to the discussion. Three in four girls are affected by this practice here in The Gambia and that is having an impact on the health and education sectors. Really I think there would come a point when they [government] would be influenced to put a stop to it.
There are those who would argue that banning FGM is a non-starter and the government risks losing popularity given the broad fact that the majority of Gambians hold this practice in very high regard. You want to comment on that?
I think this debate can be moved quiet cleverly as it is being done in other countries. The Gambia has amazing culture which it wants to keep. That is true of other countries. I don’t think any Gambian family would want their babies to die from FGM. It is not sensible and they don’t want their child be infertile too. Even if it is done in a medicalised context, its impact on women is still the same. We know from Kenya that girls died while surgeons were operating on them during deliveries. I think it takes some time… not how quickly it comes but the government should have openness in working with key players. That is the way ahead.
There are allegations that the anti-FGM campaign is a Western agenda coming from people who want to impose their views and beliefs on we Africans. How do you react to such allegations?
Our organisation is providing a piece of research in countries and we are very conscious of that. That it is about culture and that the change will have to come from within. Myself as an anthropologist and a psychologist, change can only come from within the individual, unit or people group. Imposing views or change on people will never work. Such has been done before which is a waste of money and effort. That said, I think we should all be open to change especially when that change is good. Take for example, the impact of mobile phone technology or computers on society, it is good change and that is why it has been embraced by all. Whether they come from the West or Africa does not really matter. What I would say that the ending FGM is long overdue.
One of the reasons that have often been proffered by FGM proponents is that girls risk losing their virginity when growing up and so having them undergo the practice keeps them intact. These people further peddle claims that girls that are not cut develop promiscuous lifestyles. How true are these?
This is actually not based on fact. I was talking to one organisation that did a study on both cut and uncut girls and there is no significant difference. They are really saying that uncut girls are less promiscuous than the cut girls. There are societies where the practice is non-existent and their girls are not promiscuous. So the two do not go together… I think that is about upbringing and moral code. If you are in a culture where boys and girls are initiated at 15 to 18 years, it just keeps them pure until that point but it doesn’t necessary prevent them from being promiscuous. It is about thinking of other ways. If you educate girls, they can become more economically empowered to contribute to their society and understand some of their rights. They can also make informed choices about what really works for them. Some of the choices are about what they want to happen to their bodies. I think knowledge in this is important.
If you had the opportunity to meet some of the proponents of FGM in The Gambia, what would you tell them?
I would tell that out of the 2000 women I have met working in this area over the last ten years there is not one girl who had been cut who said she wished it happened to them. Not one girl… that is 2000 voices who said, ‘I wish I could have said no to it’. That is the impetus that allows me to speak on this sensitive issue and pray that actually FGM could be ended in our generation.
Where do you see the future of the anti-FGM campaign say in the next 10 years?
Let me say that organisations like my own would be out of the job very soon as there would no such thing as FGM and there would be no work left. We are only doing this work while the issue is still there. Although it has taken 2000 years to get to this point. I think with the power of social media and the increase in the movement of the drivers of the campaign who are prepared to speak up, I think it will eventually become a non-issue. I hope it will be in my lifetime.
Any last words?
I would like to call on organisations to partner with 28 Too Many and this is part of our visit here. People can also visit our website which is, www.28toomany.org and download our report on The Gambia. We have resources available to help communities and we are ready to partner with them until there is no more work to be done.