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Why is FGM still a problem in Gambia, years after it was banned?

Youth Board member and intern, Saina Hydara, shares her thoughts on the ongoing challenges of criminalising FGM in practising countries: specifically, Gambia

On the 24th of November 2015 now exiled ex-president Yahya Jammeh announced that the long-held practice of Female Genital Mutilation would be outlawed throughout the country with immediate effect. Of course, this announcement was met with jubilation from survivors and potential victims, however the underlying scepticism could not be ignored.

It is said that legislation is meant to reflect wider social change and in many cases, such as the abolition of slavery, women getting the vote and the (semi) legalisation of abortions this was in fact the case. However, when it comes to FGM in Gambia this cannot ne said.  FGM is still widely practiced and even advocated publicly by prominent members of society as religious necessity or parts of cultural identity. So, when I recently found out the reason I escaped the same fate as 200 million women and girls before me[1], it got me wondering why people are willing to break the law in the name of FGM.

One of the main reasons people state for the practice of FGM is religion. In a 90% Muslim nation, people in Gambia take religion very seriously, much like many other Africans. So, when we have the Imam of the State House Mosque under Jammeh claiming that FGM is a crucial part of Islamic practice, people will follow his word. After all nobody wants to be on the wrong side of God, even if this means brutally mutilating your young daughter.

So, this meant that the campaign to change people’s view was an uphill battle from the beginning. After all, organisations such as GAMSCOTRUST had to get sheikhs all the way from Saudi Arabia to verify that FGM is never mentioned in the Quran and Hadith remains neutral on the matter and still people are claiming it to be a valid excuse for the practice.

To be honest, it boils down to people wanting to prevent their daughter’s from having pre-marital sex, so instead of explaining the supposed benefits of abstinence they decide to cut and sew up their genitals so neither them or any potential lovers can access them.

However, the problem in Gambia is that although most people are devoted Malikite Sunnis our practice of Islam is often syncretized with our traditional African belief systems. This means then that things that in fact have nothing to do with religion can often be masked as that, allowing it to go on unchallenged. So, with something like FGM – which was practiced even before the arrival of Islam – we see that religion should have no bearing, but it is one of the most important factors when looking at the reasons behind FGM.

In addition to these incorrect religious beliefs, Gambians have very strict unspoken rules within our society. Never speaking about sex or anything explicit like this in public is one of these rules. So even discussing the effect of FGM on a couple’s relationship would be considered a crude topic of conversation by most Gambians, or they would at least be very uncomfortable with the matter.

I mean from my experience Gambian women rarely even speak about their periods, even in female only spaces. So, conversations about the nature of vaginas or sexual pleasure between women will be a struggle to get them to engage with.

In addition to the culture of silence in Gambia about sexuality we have a lack of education on the matter. Not only is sex education very limited but few Gambians have a formal education, as of 2012 adult literacy is only 51% in the whole country. So almost half of the country may be getting no sort of sexual education, especially in more rural areas. Therefore, FGM is more widely practiced in more rural parts of the country.

It has also been said that if more women in Gambia were educated and financially secure, then they would be less likely to become ‘cutters’. In fact, GAMSCO Trust suggest that a $150 grant to the cutter is all it takes for them to stop, as this is enough for them to invest in cattle and earn their own money.

So we see overall that although the legislation is in place to protect the thousands of young women, it isn’t until we have change in the way Gambians view female sexuality and independence that these young women will be safe.

[1] World Health Organisation: Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) http://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/topics/fgm/prevalence/en/

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