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We have come too far to go back now: Preserving and implementing the Anti-FGM Law in The Gambia is a mark of meaningful progress

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By Dr Isatou Touray

and Faiza Mohamed

Human rights advocates and the broader human rights community were shocked on 11 September, 2023, when the religious leaders and later select members of parliament sought to plunge The Gambia back into the dark days of no law against female genital mutilation (FGM).

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In 2015, in response to the egregious nature of the practice of FGM in The Gambia, which often led to death, and complications in childbirth as well as a fostering of patriarchal ideologies and gender stereotypes, women rights defenders, human rights advocates, legislators and CSOs successfully advocated and enacted a law to push back on this practice. According to Unicef, 73% of women and girls aged 15 to 49 years in The Gambia have undergone FGM.

The passage of the Women’s (Amendment) Act 2015, therefore, which specifically outlawed FGM in The Gambia for the first time, was a watershed moment in the gender equality movement. This made The Gambia the 27th African country to outlaw FGM.

As CSOs and the government were working towards the implementation of this law, a retraction of the law was never on the horizon. It, therefore, came as a complete surprise that a few actors had unilaterally chosen to erase decades of progress made by anti-FGM campaigners by the introduction of a proposed repeal bill in The Gambia’s parliament being announced by the Clerk of the National Assembly on 6th February.

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The publication of this press release on the International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM is an affront to the rights of women and girls in The Gambia. In this precarious context, it is imperative to underscore the crucial importance of preserving the hard-won gains made in the fight against this egregious violation of human rights.

The Women’s (Amendment) Act of 2015 is progress for The Gambia

The current law in The Gambia, embodied in the Women’s (Amendment) Act of 2015, serves as a beacon of progress and a testament to the nation’s commitment to international and regional human rights agreements, including the Convention on All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol). This legislation unequivocally outlaws FGM, recognizing it as a gross human rights violation.

According to the Annual Report of the UNFPA–Unicef Joint Programme on Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: Accelerating Change 2016, there was legal momentum in law implementation where there were two arrests, and two convictions and sanctions three months after the legislation banning FGM came into force. The conviction of three women by the Gambia’s magistrate’s courts for performing FGM in August 2023 marked a significant milestone, demonstrating the efficacy of the legal framework in combating this harmful practice.

While this landmark ruling resulted in a wave of backlash, with a section of parliamentarians and a few religious leaders calling for a repeal of the law, it also drew support from various quarters. For instance, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) and the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC) were unequivocal in their call for the preservation of the law calling upon the Government of The Gambia to uphold its international and regional human rights commitments, while expressing deep concern at the regressive debate in parliament. 

However, despite this appeal, the hard-fought progress towards eradicating FGM in the country remains under threat, particularly with the introduction of a private member’s bill seeking to repeal the Anti-FGM Law in the name of religious and cultural ‘preservation.’ Such a move is regressive and poses a grave risk to the lives and wellbeing of women and girls in The Gambia.

Leaders in favor of safeguarding the law

A coalition of organizations led by the Gambia Committee on Traditional Practices (Gamcotrap), The Association of NGOs in The Gambia (Tango), the Network against Gender-based Violence (NGBV), Equality Now, and The Orchid Project, along with 178 CSOs from around the world united in a powerful display of solidarity. Their joint letter to the president, supported by statements from the National Human Rights Commission in The Gambia, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, underscored the urgent need to protect the existing law. The joint letter was also presented to President Adama Barrow.

A policy dialogue later hosted by Gamcotrap and the Ministry of Gender, Children, and Social Welfare, with support from Equality Now in November 2023 brought together representatives from various sectors, including government entities, NGOs, and religious leaders. The consensus was clear – strengthening legal frameworks, enhancing law enforcement capacity, raising awareness, and fostering collaboration are paramount in the ongoing battle against FGM.

Regional chiefs and ex-circumcisers, representing diverse perspectives, have also stood united in supporting the Anti-FGM Law.

Upholding the Anti-FGM Law is not just a legal imperative but a moral obligation. Let us stand united, amplify our voices, and work collaboratively to end FGM, ensuring the health and rights of our communities are safeguarded. With the world watching, history will judge us based on the actions we take.

Dr Isatou Touray is the executive director of Gamcotrap and former vice president of the Republic of The Gambia

Faiza Jama Mohamed is the Africa regional director, Equality Now

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