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Outcry over Gambian Bill to overturn FGM ban

A decision on whether to reverse a ban on female genital mutilation (FGM) in The Gambia – which was imposed in 2015 – has been postponed for three months after MPs called for more consultation this week.

FGM is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment, a fine, or both, and where it causes death, life imprisonment. However, on Monday, hundreds of people protested outside Parliament, most supporting a repeal of the ban, reports The Guardian.

At least three-quarters of Gambian women between 15 and 49 have undergone FGM – Unicef estimates at least 46% of under-14s, rising to 73% for girls and women aged 15 to 49 – and campaigners fear the proposed Bill will undo years of work, and may mark a return to women’s rights violations in the largely Muslim West African nation.

The practice involves the partial or entire removal of the external female genitalia or other harm to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.

FGM has no health benefits and can lead to excessive bleeding, urinary problems, cysts, infections, difficult deliveries and an increased risk of stillbirth.

On Monday, Jaha Dukureh, founder of anti-FGM group Safe Hands for Girls, said: “It was the most heartbreaking thing to watch men invalidate our experiences and reduce our pain to western influence.

“The Bill was sent to committee. This can be good and it can be bad. The good thing that came out of today is that FGM is still illegal in The Gambia. Sending the Bill to committee means we have a little more time but that means that in 2024, we are still debating cutting off the genitals of girls.”

The Bill’s referral to a parliamentary committee means it will be examined for at least three months before returning to Parliament for debate and a vote.

Introducing the Bill to Parliament, the MP Almameh Gibba said overturning the ban would “uphold religious loyalty and safeguard cultural norms and values”.

Opponents have often framed it as contrary to Islamic rules, while anti-FGM campaigners say the practice does not have any basis in the Qur’an.

Speaking before Monday’s decision, Janet Ramatoulie Sallah-Njie, the special rapporteur on the rights of women in Africa for the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, said she was concerned that if the FGM law were scrapped, laws around early and forced marriage could follow.

“We have to hope that civil society is fully galvanised and vigorously advocating,” said Sallah-Njie, who is from The Gambia.

News24 reports that when three Gambian women were found guilty of practising FGM on several children last year, the country was divided.

An Islamic cleric paid the fines imposed by the Kaur/Kuntaur Magistrate’s Court, and the Gambia Supreme Islamic Council issued a fatwa declaring FGM “not just a merely inherited custom” but “one of the virtues of Islam”.

Members of the country’s National Assembly called for the repeal of the 2015 law prohibiting the practice.

The vote, said Michèle Eken, senior researcher at Amnesty International’s West and Central Africa office, would be a disappointment if it were passed.

“This Bill would set a dangerous precedent for women’s rights and tarnish Gambia’s human rights record. We urge Parliament to vote against it.

“It is very disappointing that after the long fight Gambian activists put up to advance women’s rights, Parliament is preparing to consider this backward move.”

The Gambian Government “should rather address FGM’s drivers and guarantee the safety of the girl child… and implement comprehensive policies for women and girls empowerment”.

Violation of international law

If the Women’s Amendment Act is changed to give way for FGM, it would be a direct violation of international statutes to which Gambia is a signatory, she added.

“Female genital mutilation infringes on girls’ and women’s right to health and bodily integrity. Legalising it would be a violation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, all of which Gambia ratified.

“It would also violate the principle of ‘equal dignity of the person’ guaranteed in the Gambian Constitution.”

Paleki Ayang, gender adviser for the Middle East and North Africa at Equality Now, said a multi-sectoral approach to prevent and respond to FGM would be the most comprehensive approach that considers the complexity of the practice and requires interventions at multiple levels.

Abiding by laws that outlaw FGM would go a long way in stopping the act, she added.

“Although multiple countries in the region have laws and policies … to prohibit FGM, enforcement mechanisms may be weak or inconsistently applied. In some cases, there may be gaps between national legislation and customary practices that permit or even mandate the harmful practice.

“Strengthening legal frameworks and improving enforcement mechanisms are essential steps towards ending impunity for FGM perpetrators and providing legal protection for women and girls at risk.”

 

Move to overturn FGM ban in the Gambia postponed (Open access)

 

News24 article – Gambian parliament in vote to lift ban on female genital mutilation (Restricted access)

 

See more from MedicalBrief archives:

 

 

Child abuse and FGM fears over Customary Initiation Bill

 

Doctor and parents charged over fatal FGM case in Egypt

 

Anti-FGM movement gains ground in Sierra Leone, where 9/10 women are ‘cut’

 

NHS doctor on trial for genital mutilation

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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