The united fight against The Gambia's repeal of law banning FGM

5 min read
02 May, 2024

The Gambia is under scrutiny as its lawmakers have advanced a bill to repeal the ban on Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) in the West African country.

The Gambia’s lawmakers have justified their decision to repeal the procedure for reasons including religious purity and safeguarding cultural norms.

The bill has been referred to a parliamentary committee and is expected to return to parliament in June for a debate and final vote. 

“FGM is not mandated by any religion,” Divya Srinivasan, Global Lead for End Harmful Practices at the NGO Equality Now told The New Arab.

If the bill is passed, it could have catastrophic impacts.

“The Gambia’s legacy as a pioneer in West Africa in the fight against FGM will be jeopardised if this bill is passed,” Divya explained. 

The repeal of the ban “would undermine its credibility and unravel years of progress in promoting gender equality and human rights,” she added.

The impacts could be felt elsewhere. “Other countries could be motivated to repeal their anti-FGM laws or deter them from putting laws in place,” said Divya.

UNICEF released data in March 2024, stating 230 million girls and women around the world have experienced a form of FGM/C.

Africa accounts for the majority of incidences, exceeding 144 million; Asia has over 80 million, and the Middle East has a further six million. 

"The repeal of the ban would undermine its credibility and unravel years of progress in promoting gender equality and human rights"

A survivor’s fight 

Shamsa Araweelo from Somalia is an FGM/C and gender-based violence (GBV) survivor, and founder of the charity Garden of Peace.

She now lives in the UK and uses social media to speak out and advocate to eradicate FGM/C as well as help women and girls escape from GBV. 

“I'm not surprised by what's happening in The Gambia," Shamsa told The New Arab.

"It is happening because a bunch of men have been given the platform to make decisions on a woman's body.” 

On the initial vote for the repeal bill, 42 out of the 53 male members of the Gambia National Assembly voted to overturn the ban.

In total, there are only five women in the lower house of The Gambia’s parliament. 

A major concern for Shamsa is that the government in charge of these decisions “sit there and consider these proposals because it does not impact them.”

The impact of FGM/C is something Shamsa has been battling with since her family forcibly did the procedure on her when she was just six.

Since the surgery, she has had decades of health complications, discomfort, pain, and trauma.

"It is happening because a bunch of men have been given the platform to make decisions on a woman's body"

Describing the men heading the repeal bill, she said: “Ultimately it's a bunch of angry sad old men who want to destroy the lives of young little girls, it is as simple as that.” 

Shamsa finds it frustrating and disappointing that men are not standing up against FGM/C.

“Why are Islamic leaders not standing up and saying this is a crime? There are only women speaking against it, who are mostly survivors of FGM,” Shamsa added. 

The impact of FGM/C 

The New Arab received comments from Advocacy Officer, Kirigo Njenga from the Orchid Project, an international non-governmental organisation with offices in London and Kenya, working towards ending the harmful procedure. 

“FGM/C denies women and girls the right to bodily integrity, freedom from violence, and the ability to make informed decisions about their own bodies and lives,” commented Kirigo.

She went on to explain that beyond the immediate physical harm, “FGM/C perpetuates cycles of discrimination, inequality, and violence against women and girls.”

Concerns are mounting that other laws such as those regarding domestic abuse and child marriage would also come under threat.

In addition, Kirigo noted: “It would further embolden those who continue to try to challenge and seek the repeal of existing laws banning FGM/C in their countries.” 

The advocacy officer highlighted that in these cases, “It would back their false arguments of FGM/C being a practice that is required by cultural and religious practice to block the enactment of laws specifically banning the practice.”

The Gambia is not alone

Countries like Egypt have legislation in place but prosecutions are incredibly rare. The FGM-C Research initiative found that 87.2% of women in Egypt aged 15-49 have experienced the procedure.  

Unclear legislation is one of the factors that is facilitating FGM/C in countries like Somalia, which has the highest rate of FGM/C, with 98% of girls aged 5-11 years old having gone through the procedure. 

“The Constitution of Somalia prohibits FGM, however, there is no specific law provision that establishes a punishment for breach of the Constitution,” stated the anti-FGM charity, 28 Too Many, in a report. 

The end goal 

Feminist organisations have pulled together to fight the decision to repeal.

The Orchid Project and Equality Now organisations have supported the preparation of a joint statement on behalf of the local Gambian NGOs and networks.

In the statement, they urged The Gambia's government to uphold the law banning FGM, which was signed by 180 organisations in an open letter. 

Kirigo from the Orchid Project said: “The best and only acceptable outcome is that the law banning FGM/C in The Gambia be upheld.” 

If the ban is upheld, “It will further indicate The Gambian government's commitment to protecting its women and girls from violence in line with their obligations under both international and regional human rights instruments to which they are signatories,” Njenga explained. 

Divya from Equality Now added: “Prosecuting perpetrators under the law must be accompanied by positive community engagement and raising awareness of the impact of this harmful practice.” 

Since the outlawing of FGM in Gambia in 2015, there have only been two prosecuted cases, with the first conviction for performing FGM not occurring until August 2023. 

Olivia Hooper is a British journalist based in Morocco specialising in humanitarian and gender-based topics. She also works as co-lead of communications and marketing at Politics4Her