Gambie : fort recul dans la lutte pour abolir l’excision

Gambia: strong setback in the fight to abolish excision

The Gambia could become the first country to decriminalize excision, a ban that has been in law since 2015. Tabled in Parliament in March, this bill strongly divides society. For activists and survivors, this would be a huge setback after years of fighting to defend women’s rights.

Mariama Fatajo vividly remembers the day she discovered she had been circumcised. Representing the Women’s Association for Victim Empowerment (WAVE), the 26-year-old Gambian attends a workshop on female genital mutilation (FGM). While the facilitator details the different types and their consequences, she suddenly understands that her problems are linked to this practice of which she was the victim. “I burst into tears”, she remembers. In The Gambia, 76% of women aged 15 to 49 have undergone FGM according to UNICEF. Infibulated (lips and clitoris cut and then sewn) before the age of one, Mariama Fatajo now puts her experience at the service of communities. Its objective: to inform, encourage to abandon this practice, and help survivors reconcile with their bodies. Many women continue to be unaware of the link between FGM and the difficulties they face, such as infertility, pain, infections. For her, being an activist is both “a mission and a form of therapy”.

“Talking about it to people who are going through the same thing makes you feel less alone”, underlines the activist. She remains worried about her two daughters in the face of pressure from her in-laws to have them circumcised. In recent years, slow progress has been made. According to the Gambia Committee on Harmful Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children (GAMCOTRAP), 1,056 communities and 208 circumcisers have abandoned FGM. But these fragile advances could be compromised by the bill tabled in March in Parliament to decriminalize excision.

Setback in women’s rights

The FGM ban was imposed by former dictator Yahya Jammeh in 2015, providing protection to vulnerable people while supporting awareness work. After 9 years without any sanction, a turning point occurred in August 2023 with the conviction of three excisers. An opportunity exploited by defenders of FGM to demand the repeal of this law with at the head of the line, imam Abdoulie Fatty, who paid the fines of the condemned. “This ban is a direct violation of citizens’ rights to practice their culture. We want to enforce our rights and safeguard our standards and values”, claims MP Almameh Gibba, leader of the project in Parliament. Despite changes, resistance to the law persists. “People have managed to hide better and continue underground, making the practice more dangerous”, underlines Ya Lena B. Houma, a 25-year-old activist for the NGO Women in Liberation and Leadership (WILL). The fear of denunciations has led excisers to practice more and more on babies, thus accentuating the already numerous risks – hemorrhage, risk of infections, pain. Organs such as the urethra can be cut, causing serious damage. Cross-border excisions, which are not punished, have also increased.

We have great laws but many gaps in their implementation”, deplores the activist. Reporting remains difficult in this small country of 2.7 million inhabitants, and for excisers, stopping means losing their source of income. With a Parliament largely dominated by men (5 women out of 57 deputies) and little opposition to the proposed law, activists fear a decline in achievements. “If the repeal passes, it will be a significant setback for Gambian women and could have repercussions in other West African countries., says Isatou Touray, co-founder of GAMCOTRAP and survivor. Activists fear that other laws favoring women, such as banning child marriage, will be under attack. “This is the first step to repealing laws that protect women”worries Fallou Sowe, head of the NGO Network Against Gender Based Violence.

Lively social debate

The debate around FGM is polarizing Gambian society. “Defenders of FGM refuse dialogue but occupy the media and social networks to misinform”, explains Ms. Houma. Professional religious people are very attentive and vocal. “Iman Fatty is manipulating Gambians by playing on ignorance and using the only thing we fear, religion”, she criticizes. In its fatwa, the Gambian Supreme Islamic Council describes “female circumcision” as a custom and “one of the virtues of Islam”. But within the religious world, opinions differ. “It existed before Islam. Gross ignorance and misrepresentation of religion cause serious problems”, deplores Isatou Touray. If he claims to fight against excision and infibulation, Imam Fatty defends “female circumcision” as a practice allowing “restore equality by reducing female desire, which is greater than that of men. This purifies the woman and reduces the risk of genital cancer”. Dangerous and unproven remarks according to Dr Abubacarr Jah, urologist in Banjul. “Removal of an organ without any medical benefit is mutilation. Their semantics aim to make the practice acceptable by comparing it with male circumcision, which has medical benefits and is obligatory in Islam., he explains. The consequences of FGM are severe: difficulty giving birth, pain during intercourse, fistulas, etc. But the absence of quantified data in Gambia, the persistent taboo and the fear of repercussions dissuade people from speaking out. “They don’t want to listen to us,” deplores Ms. Fatajo. Activists face insults and threats for their commitment. They are also accused of lying and of being paid by the West. “It is above all a question of domination of men over women in an oppressive patriarchal society. analyzes Isatou Touray, former vice-president of the Gambia. While waiting for the vote in July, a change is already taking place through a new generation of uncircumcised girls, a source of hope.

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