If there is any Gambian who deserves a nobel prize for standing up for women rights, that is Dr Isatou Touray. For more than 40 years she led the crusade to fight against an the age-old and sensitive tradition of FGM that she believes is harmful to the health and well being of women. Her prominent role in this fight brought her both recognition and hatred.
After a short foray into politics which catapulted her to the second most influential position in the land, former vice president Touray is back at what she loves best- fighting for the cause of women and the girl child.
In this encounter with Anchor Alagie Manneh Dr Touray talks about her life and work at Gamcotrap and the continuous fight to end FGM.
Alagie Manneh: How is life after the vice presidency?
Dr Touray: It is very nice. I came out after serving my tenure of five years under the transition government and I am now going back to life as normal. I am very pleased to come back home.
How do you see Gambian politics?
Gambian politics is very interesting. When the time comes everybody is vibrantly engaged, but I think politics should be an ongoing process. There need to be a lot of preparation and we need to plan because if you plan then you can come with good outcomes and also effectively engage and deliver.
Why haven’t you been active in NPP politics?
I came in as an independent candidate and I was part of the Coalition for Change, and that change was effected by a combination of different people from different political backgrounds and different diversities. We came together to effect the change, so, we were leaders in our own rights, and I came in as an independent candidate. I served under the Coalition Government with Adama Barrow as leader. You all know the history of how this change occurred, and that it was by consensus that people agreed to let Adama Barrow lead. I believe he participated well and was the choice of the people and that’s why we worked with him. But it’s over now that he has his own party, and I appreciate the efforts that he made to set it up. He has his cabinet too. It’s beautiful, and life goes on.
Are you still in touch with the president?
Of course. He’s my boss and is still my boss. We had a very good working relationship together, and that is what life is all about.
You have been a critic of Jammeh, but shouldn’t you give him credit because the man did with one public declaration what you have been trying to do for the past 20 years? Why have you never praised Jammeh for the ban on FGM?
That’s a very good question, but I think maybe you were not following my conversations and dialogue with the media. Just last week, when I had the platform, I appreciated the efforts he made in recognising the facts surrounding FGM. It was a very difficult context we were all working under, because it was within an authoritarian regime and talking about FGM then was very deadly. But the space was there, albeit small, and there was a lot of resistance. There were so many actors who were very negative about progress for women. Gamcotrap however was very adamant and very focused and engaged, working and mobilising people to gain knowledge of FGM, to be able to make the right decisions and to make the right choices for their children. It came to a point when we got arrested for no just cause. They wanted to silence us, and everybody knew about it. It was not only about FGM, but human rights education, the rights-based approach and all the other progressive thinking we had to advance gender equality and women’s right in The Gambia. So, they wanted to silence us, but we could not be silenced because we were focused and determined and the commitment and the conviction we had could not have stopped. At the end of the day, we mustered the courage and went to court and won. It was during our 5th dropping of the knife ceremony in Jareng that he called and said, ‘ask Dr Touray if she is happy that I am going to ban FGM”. When the news was related to me, I said well, its not for me; it’s for the children of The Gambia, so you have put The Gambia in the limelight. This is history and today we cannot talk about the law banning FGM without Jammeh, and I actually appreciated it in 2015 when it happened. But remember, this was a time also when election was coming and Jammeh had to vie for another term and needed people to be behind him.
Do you believe the proclamation was more of a fanfare or grounded in conviction?
I think it was grounded on strong conviction, and the fact that we have done the advocacy for many years. Interestingly, with all those subtle resistances from different quarters, there dropping of knife ceremonies where communities would come in hundreds and thousands to celebrate and come out public to make a declaration to say we are against Female Genital Mutilation… the fact that he came out boldly to contact us and make that declaration and even made it intolaw, he has achieved something that placed women one step ahead, and that credit belonged to his time. We had a problem with him, but we did not have personal vendetta against him. It was a time when the debate and sensitization was at its momentum, and was a time when we needed to do rigorous sensitsation and social mobilisation to educate the people because there were false information going around female sexuality, shaping it in such a way that they have to be divorced, abused, circumcised and they have to accept all these types of GBV. So, on one occasion, he did a great job, but on the other hand, he was an authoritarian regime, and our rights were abused. A lot of women were taken to prison, raped, and a lot suffered in silence.
Can you tell us about the source of funding of Gamcotrap. What is your current annual budget and where do you get your money from?
I’m just coming from government after been away for the last five years. I have not received any funds yet from any donors, and since I came, about 15 months ago, I found the organisation was a little bit down and we were losing focus. I decided to assess the organisation and work around it and now we have come up with proposals. But coming back to your question, our primary donors are UNFPA, Unicef, Save the Children, Equality Now, Front Line Women, Urgent Action Fund and other organisations that we work and partner with. So, as far as I know, there’s no budget I can declare now. What I am doing is to put the organisation on a better footing and bring it back to its past glory, strengthen it and try to work engendering it with young faces and young women who are able to continue the work.
Imam Fatty has repeatedly said you are being bankrolled by Europeans and their governments. Is it true that you are being bankrolled by the West?
You see, in Africa, when there’s a woman who is speaking, or when groups of people are speaking about progress for women especially for vulnerable groups, those that feel that their power is being eroded will always accuse the West. It means that Africa does not have minds, that we do not have sense and are not supposed to think, that’s what they are saying. In a way it marginalises us. We are not being influenced by the West, but we are ready to work with the West because the issues we deal with are universal in nature. So, if the West is involved, and we are on a path that is going to bring justice for people, why not? We are very happy to be associated with the West; to take money from the West and very happy to fight with the West to ensure that women’s rights are considered as human rights. We need the resources and the support to work.
The imam said that a fight against FGM is a fight against Islam.
He is ignorant and this is even blasphemous. People who are really grounded in religion have to deal with him and silence him. He is saying something that is very wrong, and we can contest that anywhere in the world. If there’s anywhere in the Quran that prescribes that a woman is to be circumcised, I will close Gamcotrap. I have said it ten years ago and repeating it again, he is just ignorant. He doesn’t know what he is saying, and shouldn’t be allowed to talk like that, and even the newspapers should not encourage him. He is fighting against 50 percent of the population. There are so many Muslims who are not circumcising their daughters, who do not even know FGM as a practice within Islam and the fact is that it’s not associated with Islam. This is a tradition and a culture that is within certain ethnic groups and we all agreed. FGM predates Islam, any monotheistic religion in the world. It has negative effects on the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and children, and there are evidences. The word ‘change’ is a constant element, and that is what Imam Fatty and his cohorts are refusing. This government must not allow him to destroy the law that the whole country has come to agree; a law that has been passed by parliament and made the decision to protect the girl child’s rights and President Adama Barrow is on record to have said that he upholds the law. So why should anyone come to disrespect that… this is disrespect for women and children’s rights in this country and should not be tolerated. We condemn it in all its ramifications and we are going to put all our efforts to fight it.
Why is it that some people seemingly do not want to give this thing up even where a lot of Islamic opinion leaders have said that it is not Islamic per se and is more of a tradition?
Imam Fatty is speaking his mind, but the significant number of communities and people who have abandoned the practice is the evidence that tells you that people are not listening to him. If they were listening to him, and if it was a religious injunction, do you think I as a Muslim woman will fight my religion? Is he more Muslim than me? People have already learnt and know better than him. Let them not associate Islam with the practice because Islam is a religion of peace, of love and caring. If you go to the Quran, there is a sura that is associated with women but there is no authentic hadith there that confirms and affirms FGM. So, the Islamic scholars (I am not talking about those looking for fame) should stand up and clarify this and disassociate Islam from this. Gamcotrap is not the only organisation talking about FGM, so, those other organisations should also speak out and condemn Imam Fatty for his utterances. President Barrow should tell this man to respect the law. He is breaking the law, meaning he has no respect for this government.
What strategies do you have for containing Imam Fatty and his rabid pro-FGM message?
You know this is the law, and once it is broken, it should take its course no matter who is involved. Our duty is to educate the public… women cannot be oppressed. Imam Fatty should not be allowed to give this pro-FGM talks and inciting the ignorant ones to talk. If that happens, then this is the time the law should be applied, and it’s the time we have to intensify our monitoring and consultations and meetings to be able to deal with this matter. The Ministry of Gender is there and they are the technical advisers to government. If such a thing happens, they should take Imam Fatty to court and tell him it is a violation of the rights of women and that it is also disrespecting the laws of The Gambia which is serious.
Imam Fatty said he will curse you along with all the other people who are advocating anti-FGM. Are you not scared?
If I was scared, change would not have happened. I have been in the forefront for the last 40 years and I am today as strong as anything, and more committed to stand for women’s rights. If he had succeeded, I would have been dead about 40 years ago. The truth will always prevail. He is losing his ego. He is a misogynist, and a hater of women who is playing on the ignorance of the women who may not have gotten the information, but I can assure you that he is fighting a lost cause. Gamcotrap will work with partners and the gender ministry and all other relevant institutions to ensure he is silenced. He must be silenced as a negative force in this new democracy that we are moving with.
In 2015, the Women’s Act was amended and it stated certain punishments. Do you think those punishments are enough to serve as a deterrent for people practicing FGM?
Indeed, they are enough. The first thing was to ensure that the law was in place and we succeeded in doing that. You enforce things first, and progress as you go. Even in the case of the three women sentenced, people were saying that the judgement is very light but I disagree. The women pleaded guilty and the judge had to put that into consideration. One of them was a breastfeeding mother, the other was pregnant while the last woman was about 85 years old. Many people did not expect he will be making a judgment sentencing these people because before this law came in 2015, many of our cases that were reported were thrown out on the basis that there was no specific law. Now, this specific law has been put to test and the IGP has actually showed people that it is a law.
Why has it taken eight years to secure the first successful prosecution of FGM in The Gambia?
Anything that deals with women’s right, women fight ten times for it before it is heard. It’s unfortunate. One, because there is theatrical control over women’s sexuality, and the fact that they are not in leadership positions, coupled with the lack of awareness and opportunities. All these are reasons. So, eight years is a long time but in other countries it has taken even longer.
Your Excellency, what is Gamcotrap’s relation with Jaha Dukureh? Seemingly she apparently had stolen your thunder and was more credited with getting FGM ban as even indicated by Imam Faty.
Jaha Dukureh is our mentee. We are very proud to see her shine and want to encourage all other mentees who are here to do so. Nobody can steal the success of Gamcotrap because we have documented our successes, and Jaha benefitted from those successes and is today a champion following our footstep. We are very proud. There is politics in development, but we don’t compromise certain things, even for the politics of it. Maybe others compromise, so, when you compromise, you are recognised for certain things. Gamcotrpa, whatever we get, is what we deserve. So, this accreditation that is being done, is all about politics, but I don’t believe that this is the case because when it comes to recognition on anything about FGM, Gamcotrap is a shining light. But we want to share that light with everybody. We have been the mentors for a lot of them and they gained inspiration from us. So, we are very proud of Jaha Dukureh and other groups and organsations. But we are the parent body, and will continue to be so.
What is Gamcotrap’s long game? Is it a significant reduction of FGM, or a total ban?
Not significant, but a total eradication. We want it to be a story of the past, but because this is about women’s rights, it’s going to take time, and that’s why we must be focused, specific and follow the results and carry everybody along.
When it comes to women’s issues, you would tell some people that this is the sun, but they would tell you no, it is the stars. Our long-term goal is the total elimination of FGM, and that is what the UN is calling for and is what our country subscribed to at the UN. It is what they have committed themselves to and it is why resources are being given to them. This is something Gamcotrap is going to pursue to make sure sexual and gender-based violence is addressed, and the girl child protected from early marriage, FGM, rape and trafficking and enforced labour. Gamcotrap has a gamut of responsibilities, but we cannot do it alone.