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Monday, October 2, 2023

The tipping point?


She was only six. The woman cut her. Young Suntu wrenched and yelled.

“I was losing blood and I was in pain,” she recounted. “I fought the whole time, but I was held to the ground by three older women. I could not free myself.”

Suntu was still sobbing when she was shepherded and sequestered in a room. 

“I found dozen-plus girls in the room, staring at one another like lost puppies,” she added. 

They were mostly the girls she played and fought with, she said. What happened to her was what happened to them. She felt disappointed, betrayed by the people she had trusted.

“My aunty had promised me that she was going to buy sweets for me and my younger sister,” she explained. “We followed her in excitement and suddenly saw ourselves somewhere we didn’t expect. I was terrified. They cut me and some women were coming and looking after us and singing songs for us.”

One of the first songs Suntu was taught to memorise by the women was riddled with threats that woe would befall her if she ever talked to ‘outsiders’ about what had been done to her and other girls. 

Now, at 33, Suntu said she no longer feels psyched out by those threats. Yet, her voice was not without a lump when she, for the first time, revealed her story to the media, recollecting the pain she went through 27 years ago, and the result of that cut on her sexual and reproductive wellbeing. 

“I thought someone had put a curse on me,” she said. “I cannot explain to you exactly what I am going through. But I am suffering.”

She said she was told later on that she was circumcised so that she could be worthy of marriage. But the good intentions of her well meaning parents achieved just the opposite for her, she added.


It’s called FGM

Female genital mutilation refers to ‘partial or total removal of female external genitalia for non-medical purposes’.

According to the UN agency for children, Unicef, “more than 125 million women alive today have been cut” in the 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East where the practice is concentrated.

Thirty million more girls are at risk of being cut before their 15th birthday despite the fact that a majority of girls and women in those practising countries think FGM should be abolished.” 

This includes The Gambia where 78 percent of women undergo the practice as a rite of passage. The practice is regarded a ‘secret of the bush’; there’s withdrawal from one’s parents and the activity is kept from the non-initiated and the opposite sex. 

“Every five years, we used to bring together all the non-circumcised young girls and circumcise them,” said Babung Sidibeh, a former circumciser in the provincial town of Janjangbureh.

In the old woman’s view, the essence is beyond the cutting. Female circumcision, she added, is a school sort of, that teaches the circumcised songs and riddles, introduce them to customs and values and train them to become ‘responsible’ adults. 

She explained: “In our culture, it takes one month before they’re released back into society. They are brought home at night and taken to the bush at daybreak where they’re looked after and fed. This is because we also train them to know the world. When you go through the rite of passage, even if I merely look into your eyes, you should be able to interpret what I mean.”

However, the ‘bush tradition’ is breaking down in Gambia. 

Ms Fatou Kinteh, programme officer for gender and communication, UNFPA, confirmed that nowadays in some cultures, FGM is performed on babies at birth or on seventh day of birth.

“And for most cultures, FGM is performed on girls before the age of ten, during school holidays,” she added. 

For Ms Kinteh, this shift from bush tradition indicates that FGM is no longer a rite of passage that facilitates women’s marriageability since “babies that young could not be taught anything about marriage”.

Other reasons for FGM include that believe that the clitoris is unattractive; that cutting it promotes cleanliness and good health, and prevents promiscuity – a notion that sells well amongst pro-FGM Islamic scholars, who believe that the practice is also a religious requirement. 

Anti-FGM activists rebut this assumption as unscientific and baseless. 

Neneh Cham, the president of the female lawyers of Gambia, said none of the reasons for FGM are justified. The outspoken lawyer and rights activist was in her elements when she argued that “no one has the right to determine what should or should not remain part of anybody’s God-created body.

“Allah never made a mistake when He created the female being and gave her the unique part that He did, including her vital sexual and reproductive organs.”

Rights activists and health workers reported that FGM results in a number of health, psychological and sexual complications for women, including low libido, delivery complications and depression. 

“We have caused lots of suffering to our women, said Mrs Sidibeh. She confessed that there were times they used to ‘seal’ the girls for them not to be able to have sexual intercourse before marriage. 

She added: “We do that to run away from shame. So we protect their virginity. The girls have to wait for their husbands. The day a young woman goes to her husband, we remove the seal. And that’s the day her husband should have her. That pain is too much. But we thought it was good.” 

Mrs Fatou Camara-Touray, a public health nurse at Essau also gave weight to the former circumciser’s point having witnessed firsthand what she described as the harmful effects of the practice. 

“I’ve seen women who have come to labour with very tight uterus. They were completely sealed. They have very small opening which a baby’s head can’t pass through. So we had to perform episiotomies (surgical incisions used to enlarge opening to help deliver a baby) on those women.” 

According to her, researches have been done and all indicated that FGM exists in The Gambia and that in whatever form, it has health complications. In her 20 years as a nurse, she said she has seen worse cases requiring women to undergo episiotomies. 

“Sometime in 2000, when I was at Essau Health Centre, I was called from my home at 9pm to report to the health centre and saw this child who was between life and death. She was 3 years old. I was told she was circumcised in the morning but because they thought her deteriorating condition had to do with some evil thing, they did not take her to the clinic until that time. And before we could do anything, the poor child died.”

The health practitioner opposed the notion that the cutting should be minimal. She said she was convinced that however little the cut is, the survivors would still be exposed to risks of sexual and reproductive health complications.  

“Any cut you make, it’s going to leave a scar. So if that scar is there, when the woman comes into labour, the scar cannot stretch. Obviously, it will break. After delivery, women would come to us and say ‘my husband said I am too wide’. It’s the scar there that has been broken and we can’t repair that scar. And obviously, you will become extra wide. And your husband will feel that you are no longer as tight as before. So that’s also a problem women are facing in this country.”


Attitudes are changing

After more than three decades of the anti-FGM campaign in Gambia, a wind of change is blowing, sweeping even conservative rural communities. Sustained awareness-raising programmes have resulted in public declarations of abandonment of FGM by hundreds of circumcisers. Babung Sidibeh, custodian of the tradition in her native Janjangbureh, was one of them. 

The old woman assumed the role after the death of her parents, but she has since “dropped the knife”, after receiving training in reproductive health and women’s rights. 

“Soon after we circumcised our children in 2011,” she said. “Gamcotrap invited me for training. I was exposed to the harm we’ve been doing to our fellow women.”

With a tinge of remorse, she added: “If I had known that before what I know today, I would never have circumcised anyone. And if my grandparents had known what I know today, they would not have circumcised anyone. Ignorance was the problem.”

Mrs Camara-Touray said even the Ministry of Health had since taken a more proactive role towards FGM by developing obstetric and FGM complication registers and training of nurses on FGM. 

“Until recently, when you ask most health workers about the complications of FGM, they will say they’ve seen nothing. This was because they were not trained. Since 2011, we’ve changed our curriculum to include FGM. Also, the registers are in place at health centres and in three months, we’ve gone to a region and we are able to see that they’ve recorded 272 complications due to FGM.”

Prominent in the anti-FGM crusade is Gamcotrap, a women rights NGO that fights against harmful traditional practices. “I am happy to report that since 2007, more than 128 circumcisers and 900 communities have abandoned the practice. This trend will continue to grow,” Isatou Touray, executive director of Gamcotrap, has said. 



De-linking FGM from Islam

However, the anti-FGM campaign is not without an opposition. An influential group of Islamic scholars, backed by the leadership of the Supreme Islamic Council, continue to maintain that FGM is a religious injunction.

With a large following, these clerics have in recent times also intensified their pro-FGM campaign.

In March, Gamcotrap convened a forum which brought together Islamic scholars from Mali, Guinea, Mauritania and Gambia. 

“We had a constructive debate and it came out overwhelmingly accepted that FGM is not an Islamic practice, it’s a cultural practice,” said Dr Touray. “I know there are pockets of resistance but that’s always the case when it comes to women’s issues.”

Leading the resistance movement at that forum was Ebrima Jarjue, an executive member of the Supreme Islamic Council. “It will be a big mistake if they legislate against FGM,” he told me on the sidelines of that conference. 

He added: “Our religion says we cut just small. We should be allowed to practise our religion. If some people are doing it and doing it bad, let them stop it. Let them go and learn how to do it. If circumcising the girl child when she’s young is causing problems, then let’s wait until she grows up. That’s what used to happen.”

The Women’s Bureau, the implementing arm of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, is hesitant towards legislation against FGM.

“As far FGM is concerned, the position of the Women’s Bureau is that there’s need for more sensitisation and dialogue to push the course forward,” said Neneh Touray, information and communication officer of the Women’s Bureau. She declined to comment on whether the bureau thought that the bill was premature.


The legislative standoffs

In 2010, the National Assembly made a declaration, pledging to support any bill that criminalises FGM. A year before, in 2009, Gambian leader, President Yahya Jammeh shifted his shape on the FGM debate. He said he was not in support of the practice and advised against it. 

Yet several previous attempts to legislate against FGM have failed, with no fewer than three pro-women laws having had clauses on FGM removed from draft bills. 

Njundu Drammeh, coordinator, Child Protection Alliance, said: “We know that in [what’s now] the Women’s Act of 2010, there was a provision in the bill that criminalises FGM. This was expunged. Who did it, we don’t know. Why they did it, we don’t know.”

The legislative standoff anti-FGM have been facing is causing a raising of eyebrows and activists have begun asking whether the women leaders, have any teeth to bite with. 

Addressing a group of feminists earlier this year, Mrs Sagar Jahateh, a former secretary general of the Female Lawyers’ Association of The Gambia, said: “We have a very positive image of women in this country and women have taken a lot of strides and a lot of rights have been accorded to them. There are female ministers, speakers, and judges and we have a female vice president. Then, why are women lagging behind men? If women have effective voice at the executive and legislative levels, I believe that they would have passed the provisions on FGM. It’s not just a question of having big numbers, or having them there. These women should be able to stand up for other women and influence laws and policies that affect women.”


The tipping point

Despite the opposition of the unyielding clerics who have the ears of the politicians and the women’s bureau’s balking standpoint, women rights activists said they are ready to make a final push. 

“The campaign has reached its climax,” said Dr Isatou Touray of Gamcotrap. “A lot of work has been done. I am hopeful of having a law because women are calling for it, men are calling for it.”

Two years ago, Gamcotrap sponsored a draft bill which has been subjected to wide stakeholder consultations.

“There can be no half measures,” says lawyer Amie Bensouda, the legal consultant for the draft bill. “The law has to be clear. It’s proposed by the law that FGM in all its forms is prohibited. This discussion cannot go forever. The government should do what is right.”


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