“There is nothing pleasant about FGM”: Survivors share concerns about pro-FGM bill being considered in The Gambia

Reporter Nyima Sillah speaks with survivors of FGM in The Gambia, and unpacks the bill that could see the ban on the practice overturned.

CW: Discussion of violence against women

For Zahra Jarju, a survivor of female genital mutilation (FGM), there is nothing pleasant about the practice. Instead, FGM impacted her life socially, physically, and even affected her education. According to Zahra, her family sect doesn’t practice FGM, however her parents were convinced by a neighbour that it’s a religious practice.

“We were fooled that we were going to attend an event but unfortunately they took us to the bush. Before I realised anything, one of the most precious parts of my body was cut," Zahra tells Missing Perspectives. "I lost a lot of blood during that time. In between, I developed anemia and I constantly had trauma. I couldn’t go to school and it took me more than a month before I fully healed,” she says.

Another survivor, Tala Camara, said her memories of FGM are still vivid.

“When I was cut at the age of seven, I experienced a long duration of urinating every day till I healed. It was painful for me, I always get scared to urinate due to the pain,” Tala says.

Tala experienced trauma and pain with doubts until Grade 7 in school, when she realised what FGM meant. She shed tears as she explained that her marriage is not pleasant.

“When I got married recently, I found it very difficult to get intimate with my husband because all I feel is pain," Tala says. "As for me, my clitoris was removed completely. It's so clean that if you don’t know a woman is supposed to have a clitoris, you will think that was how I was created,” she said.

"I am lucky that I have a man who understands what FGM is all about, and now my biggest fear is giving birth. If this law is repealed, I won’t want to have a female child in this country because, at the end of the day, she won’t be safe here," she added, referring to a bill that seeks to repeal the Women’s (Amendment) Act 2015.

“FGM has no health benefits”

Dr. Mustapha Bittaye, Director of Health Services at the Ministry of Health in The Gambia, pointed out the many complications of FGM, starting from immediate complications which include bleeding uncontrollably, infections, and psychological trauma, while long-term complications include prolonged labour, clitoral cysts, postpartum haemorrhage, among others.

“FGM has no health benefits. It is traumatic generally to women,” he explained.

The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) has reported that over 230 million women and girls around the world are victims of FGM, of which 144 million victims live in Africa. Human rights organisations, including the United Nations have urged countries to end FGM practices for the last two decades.

According to a recent survey, 73% of women in The Gambia have undergone FGM with 65% of those being under the age of five. The practice is usually conducted by older women in society.

In The Gambia, the FGM law has become a serious danger for activists, women, and girls. The bill that seeks to repeal the Women’s (Amendment) Act 2015 survived its second reading, after 42 lawmakers voted for the bill to be committed to the relevant committees of the National Assembly for further consultations.

FGM First Prosecution Case in The Gambia

Meanwhile, despite the ban and complications, some people still carry on the practice underground in the country. In January 2023, a female circumciser called Mba Yassin Fatty in Bakadaji Mandinka Village in Niani District of Central River Region (CRR) was convicted of circumcising eight children.

Yassin became the first circumciser to be prosecuted since the enactment of the anti-FGM law in 2015. When the matter was taken to court, the three involved in the case - Mba Yassin Fatty the circumciser, Nano Jawla and Khadijatou Jallow, mothers of circumcised children - were sentenced to a fine of D15,000 each in default to serve one year in prison.

Gambian Muslim cleric Imam Abdoulie Fatty paid fines for the women convicted of FGM. A pro-FGM bill has since been presented before the country’s national assembly, and the renowned Islamic scholar supports the bill.

“The activists are campaigning about FGM, which doesn’t exist in this country. Cutting all the clitoris of a woman doesn’t exist in this country. What we have here is circumcision. The former President forced the MPs to enact the Act in 2015,” he told Missing Perspectives.

Imam Fatty said that people have not been talking about FGM since the time of Jammeh, but when an old woman at the age of 90 years was prosecuted they saw it as people trying to belittle Islamic religion.

“If you aren’t going to do it, no problem, we don't say it should be forced, but for them to say the practice is not Islamic is unacceptable. Those who want to do it should carry on the practice but should not be prosecuted,” he said

“Pro-FGM Bill threatens fight against GBV”

Leading women's rights activist Fatou Baldeh has said repealing the anti-FGM law threatens the progress The Gambia already achieved.

“If this law is to be repealed, it will take that away from us. Also, the fear is that if this law gets repealed, we may see other laws that are supposed to protect women and girls being attacked,” she tells Missing Perspectives.

According to Baldeh, The Gambia is struggling with a high number of cases of sexual and gender-based violence, but cases of sexual violence are not being prosecuted or dealt with properly. If the anti-FGM law is repealed, it will affect women and girls' confidence in the systems and the ability of the government of The Gambia to protect women.

Baldeh says there is evidence showing how FGM affects women's and girls' reproductive health and rights. She urged the National Assembly Committees considering the pro-FGM bill to not allow culture and tradition as an excuse to perpetuate violence against women and girls.

“Culture and traditions change, and as a country, we have moved away from a lot of traditions and cultures that are not aligned with this time of the century,” she said.

Gender Ministry Speaks Out

The Gambia’s Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Welfare has remained silent on the pro-FGM debate until it survived a second reading. Only after that reading did it issue a statement: “The government has been in consultation with the National Assembly to uphold the law prohibiting the practice of FGM in The Gambia.”

The Ministry said despite the government’s position to maintain the law, it had to allow the pro-FGM to follow the due parliamentary process to demonstrate the government’s adherence to democratic principles and the rule of law.

Minister Fatou Kinteh has said the government will continue to create awareness of the negative consequences of the deep-rooted practice.

“In its drive to protect the welfare, health, and well-being of women and girls, The Gambia will continue social mobilisation at the community level on the health and reproductive health consequences of FGM as well as the human rights violation of the practice. Efforts to advance gender equality require improved coordination at the inter-ministerial level and across different state and non-state actors,” she said.

The Gambia Bar Association (GBA) also released a statement calling on members of the Gambia National Assembly, the Government, civil society, and the wider public to stand firmly in defence of the rights of women and girls.

Kiang West lawmaker supports pro-FGM bill

Member for Kiang West Hon Lamin Ceesay is one of the lawmakers who supported the pro-FGM bill. He said he has sought to "empower Gambians who wish to practice FGM based on cultural and religious grounds without being arrested."

Ceesay says section 25 of The Gambia 1997 Constitution addresses matters of religion clearly, saying every Gambian should be free to belong to any religion and to manifest that religious practice. The clause is entrenched and nobody "dares to amend that clause," he says.

Ceesay emphasised that the Constitution is the supreme law of the country and any other law which is inconsistent with any provision of that Constitution shall be null and void. Thus, he said the law that bans FGM, which is a religious practice, is "not a good law."

“People have been in this advocacy for quite a long time to say FGM is happening in the country. I doubt that because there is no evidence of FGM,” he said.  

“Practice Should Be A Choice”

Human rights lawyer Hassan Martin has said the practice should be a choice for families, saying those who will be engaging in the practice shall owe a duty of care and be ready to take responsibility where the practice has gone wrong.

“I urge the parliamentarians to vote with their conscience, taking into consideration the social impact,” he said. “There should be the need to educate on the issue, moreover to do a periodic review in the society, every 5 years, to evaluate the health implications on the person concerned.”  

Concerned citizens weigh in  

Kebba Manneh, a concerned Gambian citizen, said FGM is not an issue in The Gambia in the first place because women are not subjected to mutilation but rather circumcision which has been practiced for decades among the majority ethnic groups and people of The Gambia.

“Knowing that the practice is common among the majority of Gambians, in my view, what can be done is to train practitioners on how best to carry out the process if they think women are being subjected to mutilation rather than outright banning it,” he said.