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The Gambia is debating whether to repeal its ban on female genital mutilation

Opponents of the ban on female genital mutilation (FGM) gather outside the National Assembly in Banjul, The Gambia, on March 18, 2024. Lawmakers voted to advance a highly controversial bill that would lift the ban on FGM.
Muhamadou Bittaye/AFP via Getty Images
Opponents of the ban on female genital mutilation (FGM) gather outside the National Assembly in Banjul, The Gambia, on March 18, 2024. Lawmakers voted to advance a highly controversial bill that would lift the ban on FGM.

As more and more countries outlaw the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM), The Gambia could become the first country in the world to overturn such a ban.

The country's National Assembly advanced a bill on March 18 that would repeal the 2015 law criminalizing all acts of FGM. That prospect has alarmed health and human rights activists in The Gambia and worldwide.

"This is pushback against women's rights," says Nimco Ali, an FGM survivor and co-founder of the Five Foundation. "As soon as we make progress toward equality, the religious right comes together."

According to a United Nations report released earlier this month, over 230 million girls and women have survived FGM and live with its lasting effects. The practice of cutting, altering or injuring female genitalia for non-medical reasons presents serious, potentially fatal health risks to young girls and women.

"Beyond excruciating pain and severe bleeding, long-term physical and psychological damage can result from the procedure, including infection, infertility and post-traumatic stress disorder," the U.N. report says, as well as "childbearing complications, including postpartum hemorrhage, stillbirth and infant mortality."

The campaign to repeal The Gambia's ban on FGM speaks to how deeply entrenched a custom it remains there, as well as in a number of other countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Female genital mutilation is often regarded as a mandatory rite of passage, a prerequisite for marriage or even a religious requirement.

"Respected Islamic leaders have refuted such links and justifications," says Ali. "But if more people become persuaded that there is a religious justification, more people from the religious right will also be attracted."

"FGM is not in the Koran," says Wisal Ahmed, who manages the program on the elimination of FGM run by UNFPA, the U.N. sexual and reproductive health agency, and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). "It is not in any of the holy books. We have many resources from several U.N. agencies about de-linking religion and FGM and answering religious issues."

The debate over FGM has divided The Gambia for months, with hundreds gathering to protest outside parliament. Here, anti-FGM protestors demonstrate at the National Assembly session on March 18.
MUHAMADOU BITTAYE / Muhamadou Bittaye/AFP via Getty Images
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Muhamadou Bittaye/AFP via Getty Images
The debate over FGM has divided The Gambia for months, with hundreds gathering to protest outside parliament. Here, anti-FGM protestors demonstrate at the National Assembly session on March 18.

A growing backlash

The full Gambian National Assembly would still have to approve any repeal of the ban, which stays in effect in the meantime.

The push to roll it back flared up in August 2023, when three women became the first Gambians to be fined for performing FGM.

"Islamic cleric Imam Abdoulie Fatty, who believes that FGM is prescribed by Islam, found that outrageous," says Rose Sarr, The Gambia representative for UNFPA. "[He] led a delegation to the women's village and paid their fines."

The movement to repeal the ban picked up steam from there over the following years. "We had hoped that because the ban has the support of so many young people and Gambians that the Assembly would not have voted this way," says Ali. "The President had given assurances that this bill would not go through, but unfortunately he reneged on that."

Sarr notes that The Gambia's Speaker of the House opposes repealing the ban, and says the anti-FGM law is "here to stay." Lawmakers will decide its fate at the next Assembly session in June.

If the ban were to be repealed, activists worry that it could lead to the further erosion of women's rights.

"There is more to come in Gambia," says Ali. "The Imam has stated that once the ban is repealed, then the next [goal] will be to repeal laws against child marriage."

Sarr says the ripple effects of repealing the ban could go far beyond The Gambia.

"We are afraid that this will cause a spill-over effect in other countries and around the world," Sarr said.

Ali says her organization is working to pass an anti-FGM law in Sierra Leone.

"That has been difficult," she says. "If the repeal in Gambia goes forward, there is no hope for that."

Seeking solutions

Changing deeply-held traditions around female genital mutilation is a complicated process, says Ahmed.

"Every community has different beliefs, and so one intervention does not work for all settings," she says.

"For [many cultures], FGM is associated with the marriageability of their daughter, of their remaining pure and virginal. But it is a misconception ... You have to adapt to each community or culture and it takes time to progress and have an impact."

The support of boys and men will be crucial in ending FGM, says Sarr, adding that the community projects her program works with reinforce that message.

"[Males] can support the women and fight and stop the practice in the current and next generation. We will count on them to help fight for the women," she says.

Ali and others activists say FGM is ultimately a matter of human rights. The vast majority of FGM survivors did not consent to undergoing the practice – most are well below the age of consent, generally between infancy and adolescence.

"FGM is a form of violence, a horrific form of gender-based violence," says Ali. "I say this as an FGM survivor, having undergone this as a 7-year old. The physical, psychological and emotional scars left by this experience cannot be undone. We have the right to not be harmed."

Diane Cole writes for many publications, including The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. She is the author of the memoir After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges. Her website is DianeJoyceCole.com.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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