Thursday, April 25

Gambia votes to overturn historic ban on female genital cutting

Gambian lawmakers have voted to repeal the ban on female circumcision by removing legal protections for millions of girls, raising fears that other countries will follow suit.

Of the 47 members of the Gambian National Assembly present on Monday, 42 voted in favor of a bill to overturn the ban, sending the decision back to committees before a final vote. Human rights experts, lawyers and women’s and girls’ rights activists say overturning the ban will undo decades of work to end female genital cutting, a centuries-old ritual linked to ideas of sexual purity, obedience and control.

If it passes the final stages, the small West African nation of Gambia will become the first nation in the world to abandon protections against budget cuts.

Government committees will be able to propose amendments before the text returns to Parliament for a final reading in around three months – but analysts say the text has now passed the key milestone: its supporters will gain momentum and it will probably become law.

The Gambia banned female genital cutting in 2015, but only enforced the ban last year, when three practitioners received heavy punishments. An influential imam in the predominantly Muslim country has rallied to the cause and led calls for the ban to be renewed, saying the cuts – which in Gambia usually involves Removing the clitoris and labia minora of girls aged 10 to 15 is a religious and culturally important obligation.

Anti-cutting activists gathered outside Parliament in Banjul, the Gambian capital, on Monday morning, but police erected barricades and prevented many of them from entering – while allowing entry to religious leaders who advocate excisions and their supporters, according to Fatou Baldeh, one of Gambia’s anti-excision activists. main opponents of excision.

“It was very sad to watch all this debate and the men trying to justify why this would continue,” Ms. Baldeh said after the vote. She said she feared that if the men leading the charge — whom she called extremists — were successful, they would then try to roll back other laws, such as one banning child marriage.

In Parliament, lawmakers – all men – exchanged arguments.

“If people are arrested for practicing FGM, it means they are deprived of their right to practice religion,” said MP Lamin Ceesay, according to Oversight of Parliamenta project that promotes parliamentary transparency and accountability.

“Let’s protect our women,” said another, Gibbi Mballow. “I am a father and I cannot support such a bill.” He added: “Religion says we should not harm women. »

The cut takes different forms and is most common in Africa, although it is also popular in some parts of the country. Asia and the Middle East. Internationally recognized as a gross violation of human rights, it frequently leads to serious health problems, such as infections, bleeding and severe pain. cause of death in the countries where it is practiced.

Around the world, genital mutilation is increasing despite campaigns to end it – mainly due to population growth in countries where it is common. More than 230 million women and girls have suffered from it, according to UNICEF, an increase of 30 million people since the agency’s last estimate in 2016.

Four lawmakers voted against the bill and one abstained Monday. Only five of Gambia’s 58 lawmakers are women, meaning men are leading the debate on a practice imposed on young girls.

“They have no say,” said Emmanuel Joof, chair of Gambia’s National Human Rights Commission.

Repealing the ban will have “serious, even deadly, consequences for the health and well-being of Gambian women and girls,” said Geeta Rao Gupta, the U.S. ambassador for global women’s issues.

From 1994 to 2016, The Gambia was ruled by one of the region’s most notorious dictators, Yahya Jammeh, who, according to a truth commission established in 2021, had a squadron torture and kill people, rape women and threw many people into prison for no reason. . He called on those fighting to end female genital mutilation, often known by its acronym “FGM,” “enemies of Islam.»

Many Gambian opponents of FGM were therefore shocked when, in 2015, Mr Jammeh banned the practice – which many observers attributed to the influence of his Moroccan wife.

The new law has been hailed as a watershed in The Gambia, where three-quarters of women and girls are circumcised. But the law has not been enforced, and those pro-exterminator imams who are “determined to have a theocratic state” have been emboldened to try to repeat it, according to Mr. Joof.

Clerics in the Muslim world disagree on whether female circumcision is Islamic, but it is not mentioned in the Quran. The most vocal of Gambian imams, Abdoulie Fatty, argued that “Circumcision makes you cleaner” and said that husbands of women who have not been circumcised suffer because they cannot satisfy their wives’ sexual appetites. Many Gambians have accused Mr Fatty of being a hypocrite, pointing out that when Mr Jammeh banned FGM, Mr Fatty was the presidential imam but apparently said nothing.

At the first reading of the bill two weeks ago, Mr Fatty asked a group of young women to chant pro-cuts slogans in front of Parliament. With veiled faces – which is unusual in Gambia – they sang and held up pink posters which read: “Female excision is our religious belief”.

Ms. Baldeh, opponent of excision, was 8 years old when it was stuck and cut. But when she first heard the term “female genital mutilation” while studying for a master’s degree in sexual and reproductive health, she didn’t recognize that it was something she had experienced, because she saw it as part of her culture, not something violent that harmed women. Her own grandmother, a traditional birth attendant, was involved in FGM.

After reading and talking to other women, Ms. Baldeh realized what she had been subjected to and began speaking out against female circumcision – first by trying to change the minds of members of her own community. family. She has become one of the most prominent voices opposing budget cuts in The Gambia.

The cuts could end within a generation, if there was the will to do so, Ms Baldeh said.

“If you don’t circumcise a girl, she won’t circumcise her future daughters,” she said.

On March 4, Ms. Baldeh was at the White House with Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Jill Biden, the first lady, receiving the International Women of Courage Award for her work against the cuts. But on the same day, Gambian lawmakers listened to the first reading of a bill to overturn the ban on female circumcision – a bill that would undermine legal gains made by Ms Baldeh and other opponents of the practice. excision.

She and other observers said most Gambian lawmakers did not necessarily believe in the cuts but favored the bill because they were afraid of losing their parliamentary seats.

“The saddest thing is the silence of the government,” she said.

This silence even extends to the ministry responsible for the protection of women and children, headed by Fatou Kinteh, former coordinator of the United Nations Population Fund in The Gambia for gender-based violence and female genital mutilation. Reached by telephone on Saturday, Ms. Kinteh declined to comment on a possible lifting of the logging ban, saying she would call back later. She never did.

Ms Baldeh said the imams’ recent rhetoric in favor of female circumcision has spread to many Gambian men, who have unleashed a torrent of online abuse against women who speak out against the practice, undermining what had been a thriving movement aimed at increasing the participation of women and girls. rights in Gambia. But she said online abuse would not derail their efforts.

“If this law is repeated, we know they will come back for more,” Ms. Baldeh said. “So we will fight until the end.”