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What’s happening with the FGM law in the Gambia? 

The law against female genital mutilation (FGM) in the Gambia is at risk. Current attempts to repeal the anti-FGM law were ignited by a few religious leaders and National Assembly members after the first prosecution and convictions of cutters based on the Women’s Act. In August 2023, the Kaur/Kuntaur Magistrates’ Court convicted three women for performing FGM on eight adolescent girls. This landmark judgment marked the first conviction of its kind since the enactment of the law banning FGM eight years prior.

In response to the conviction, in September 2023, religious leaders and select members of parliament initiated public discussions seeking to repeal the Women’s  Act to introduce ‘consent’ to FGM for women who wish to go through FGM as part of their culture or religion.  In October we joined The Association of Non-Governmental Organizations in The Gambia (TANGO), the Gambia Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children (GAMCOTRAP), and the Network Against Gender-Based Violence (NGBV) and over 170 other civil society organizations from across The Gambia and around the world to call on the Government of the Republic of The Gambia uphold the law prohibiting female genital mutilation (FGM).

The Women’s (Amendment) Bill 2024, which proposes to repeal provisions criminalizing FGM, had its first and second readings completed in March 2024. This Bill has now been handed over to the Parliamentary Select Committee for further review and discussion before being reintroduced to the main House for debate and possible adoption after voting takes place on 24 July 2024. 

Further, the Parliamentary  Joint Committee of Health and Gender presented its report on the Bill on 8th July, underscoring the negative health effects of FGM on women and girls and emphasizing that FGM is not a religious obligation.  

Some  of the key  recommendations of the Joint Committee report, which was adopted by a majority of the National Assembly, are:

  1. That the Women’s (Amendment) Act 2015 should be maintained to prohibit FGM in all its forms in The Gambia
  2. Legal support and protection to be provided to women and girls at risk of FGM and those who have undergone FGM
  3. The government should enforce the law as well as issue clear policy directives prohibiting FGM
  4. The government should clearly ban any attempts to medicalize the practice of FGM

There has been widespread international condemnation of the attempts to repeal the ban on FGM, including by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation – Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission (IPHRC), the UN Secretary-General. The statement of the Global Platform to End FGM/C collates key regional and international calls to uphold the ban on FGM in The Gambia. 

What is the current law on FGM in the Gambia?   

The Gambia has signed and ratified regional and international legal instruments demonstrating their commitment to end FGM, and protect and advance the rights of Gambian women and girls by ensuring their safety and well-being.

Some of these instruments include the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women(CEDAW), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa  (Maputo Protocol), the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights among others.

Nationally, the Gambia has the Women’s (Amendment) Act 2015 which explicitly criminalizes FGM providing a legal framework to prosecute perpetrators of FGM and protect women and girls from the practice.  Sections 32A and 32B of this law criminalize and set out punishments for performing, procuring, and aiding and abetting the practice of FGM.

The Constitution of the Gambia protects women’s and girls’ right to life, freedom from torture and inhuman treatment, right to full and equal dignity, and freedom from discrimination based on gender. The right to enjoy, practice, profess, maintain, and promote any culture, tradition, or religion is limited and subject to the condition that it does not impinge on the rights and freedoms of others.

How prevalent is FGM in the Gambia?

Female genital mutilation is internationally recognized as a human rights violation. In the Gambia, almost three-quarters of women and girls aged between 15 and 49 have undergone FGM. The majority (65%) of them underwent FGM before the age of five, with an additional 18% undergoing FGM between the ages of five and nine years old, according to the 2019-20 Gambian Demographic and Health Survey (GDHS).

In West Africa, cross-border FGM remains a problem with girls in border communities being at risk even in countries with anti-FGM laws. Families and cutters move across borders to countries with no laws or with weak enforcement to perform FGM and evade prosecution according to 28 Too Many. The Gambia is no exception. There is cross-border FGM between the Gambia and Senegal as reported by UNICEF.

However, the Women’s Amendment Act 2015 does not specifically address this challenge and does not criminalize cross-border FGM.

What are people’s attitudes to FGM in the Gambia?

According to Gambian DHS, the proportion of women who believe FGM should continue decreased from 65% in 2013 to 46% in 2020, and this belief is particularly held by women who have undergone FGM. 

The prevalence of FGM among daughters generally decreases with increasing mother’s education, from 49% among those whose mothers have no education to 39% among those whose mothers have a secondary education or higher. In general, however, there has been little reduction in FGM prevalence in the country from 75% in 2013 to 73% in 2019.

The knowledge that FGM is illegal increases with age, with 89% of women and 65% of men aware of its illegality. The medicalization of FGM is not widespread where less than 1% of women and girls are cut by a medical professional. The practice is predominantly performed by traditional cutters.

What would repealing the anti-FGM law mean?

Repealing the anti-FGM law in Gambia would have serious and far-reaching consequences including reversing the gains made in safeguarding the rights and well-being of women and girls. 

Without legal prohibition, the incidence of FGM is likely to increase as the practice becomes legally permissible, signaling that the government condones a harmful practice that infringes on the rights to health, security, bodily integrity, and freedom from torture and cruel treatment. The lack of law against FGM creates a legal loophole and weakens enforcement of protective measures which ultimately would reverse the progress made in reducing FGM and protecting girls and women. All these will then mean the Government of The Republic of Gambia will be in breach of its obligations under international and regional human rights law as well as under the country’s Constitution. 

Additionally, a repeal could have a ripple effect weakening regional and international solidarity against FGM, undermining efforts to end FGM not in the Gambia but across the continent, and adversely impacting millions of lives in Africa and beyond.

How is Equality Now working to uphold the anti-FGM law? 

Equality Now is supporting a comprehensive campaign in the defence of the Women’s Act 2015, including: 

  • A comprehensive media advocacy campaign to ensure the facts about FGM permeate both traditional and social media platforms engaging and educating the Gambian public towards rejecting the unconscionable amendments. Our media advocacy includes amplification of survivor voices to inform the discourse and help make clear that FGM has real negative impacts on real people.
  • We are providing technical support to Gambian CSOs, including GAMCOTRAP to undertake legal advocacy informed by regional experience and expertise and guided by human rights standards, presenting undeniable legal persuasion to Members of Parliament so that we and our local partners in the Gambia can help them see the importance of an anti-FGM law. We have continued to raise the issue in international spaces, including at the recent United Nations Human Rights Council session (June-July 2024) where we co-hosted a successful side event calling for action to end cross-border FGM. At the side event, Dr, Isatou Touray, Executive Director of GAMCOTRAP and the former Vice President of The Gambia highlighted the recent backlash in The Gambia and called for international solidarity towards ensuring that The Gambia upholds the law in compliance with its international human rights obligations. 
  • We are supporting local CSOs in the Gambia to convene, coalesce, and engage with communities, traditional and religious leaders, journalists, and even Members of Parliament to engage in a discourse on the negative effects of FGM and the negative ramifications of rolling back on the existing legal protection.

Equality Now works with partners across Africa and around the world to end harmful practices, including FGM. We lead global campaigns against harmful practices, pushing for states to enact and implement effective laws and to be held accountable to their international obligations. Collaborating with our network of regional partners, we strengthen grassroots efforts by amplifying the voices of local activists to leaders, policymakers, and citizens everywhere.

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