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NGOs Unite to Urge The Gambian Government to Uphold Landmark Law Banning Female Genital Mutilation

Banjul, The Gambia, October 9, 2023The 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) are joined by 178 civil society organizations from across The Gambia and around the world in co-signing this open letter urging the Government of the Republic of The Gambia to stand firm in its commitments to protect women and girls by upholding the law prohibiting female genital mutilation (FGM). This letter is in response to deeply troubling comments recently made by some religious and political leaders advocating for the decriminalization of FGM, including regressive statements in the national parliament calling for the law to be repealed. 

Landmark conviction for female genital mutilation 

In 2015, The Gambia took a momentous step by amending the Women’s Act 2010 to explicitly criminalize FGM under sections 32A and 32B. The Women’s (Amendment) Act of 2015 prohibits FGM, stating that “a person shall not engage in female circumcision… a person who engages in female circumcision commits an offence” and is liable on conviction to “imprisonment for a term of three years or a fine of fifty thousand dalasis or both; and where female circumcision causes death, to life imprisonment.”

Current attempts to remove legal protections were sparked by the convictions in August 2023 of three women for carrying out FGM on eight infant girls. Each offender was ordered to pay a fine of 15,000 dalasis (around $230 US) or serve a one-year prison sentence. The landmark judgment by the Kaur/Kuntaur Magistrates’ Court marks the first conviction since the law banning FGM was enacted eight years ago.

Sustained efforts are required to accelerate FGM’s eradication, and we hail the significance of these convictions and their role in addressing impunity. This case underscores the need to bolster enforcement mechanisms and awareness-raising throughout The Gambia, where UNICEF estimates 73% of women and girls aged 15 to 49 have been subjected to this illegal practice. 

However, we are concerned about the leniency of the sentences, as a fine of just D15,000 does not adequately reflect the crime’s seriousness.

Furthermore, some political and religious leaders have openly supported the convicted individuals, such as Imam Abdoulie Fatty, who paid for the women’s fine. Concerningly, alongside publicly advocating for the law against FGM to be repealed, some influential figures have even recommended that FGM be continued. This is despite the promotion or incitement of FGM being criminalized and such injurious comments being in direct contradiction to the principles of justice, protection, and welfare of women and girls.

Widespread concerns over regressive calls to repeal the law against FGM 

A joint statement by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) and the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC) expresses their “deep concern on the current regressive Parliamentary debate” advocating for the repeal of The Gambia’s laws prohibiting FGM. 

The UN in The Gambia has also released a statement reaffirming its commitment to supporting the fight to end FGM in The Gambia, highlighting that the prohibition of FGM under the law is in line with The Gambia’s international and regional human rights commitments.

FGM has no health benefits and harms girls and women in many ways. It involves the removal and damage of healthy and normal female genital tissue and disrupts the natural functions of the body. Immediate complications can include severe pain, shock, haemorrhage (bleeding), tetanus or sepsis (bacterial infection), urinary retention, open sores and swelling in the genital area, and damage to nearby genital tissue. FGM can result in death. 

Long-term effects can include recurrent bladder and urinary tract infections, cysts, painful scar tissue, the need for subsequent surgery, sexual health problems, and mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety. FGM can also cause infertility and increased risk of complications during childbirth, such as excessive bleeding and obstetric tearing, which can lead to maternal and infant death.

The Gambia has one of the highest FGM prevalence rates in West Africa, and the Foundation for Research on Women’s Health, Productivity and the Environment (BAFROW) reports that seven of the country’s nine ethnic groups practice FGM

The Gambia’s Government must safeguard women and girls from FGM

We, the undersigned, will not relent in our efforts to ensure every girl and woman enjoys her fundamental human rights and has her dignity respected and defended. As such, we stand in solidarity with the survivors, organisations, and activists in The Gambia who have tirelessly advocated for the rights of women and girls, and our commitment remains focused on the experiences and realities of those who endure the trauma of this harmful practice.

We condemn in the strongest terms the actions of detractors who misdirect social and

religious adherence to promote their personal agendas to the detriment of the welfare and rights of women and girls, who bear indelible scars while their bodies are reduced to political tools. Regrettably, thousands more in The Gambia remain at risk. 

The Gambia has demonstrated admirable leadership in taking legislative action against FGM, and the positive ripple effects extend far beyond its borders, influencing other West African nations in their endeavours to combat this entrenched form of gender-based violence. Neighbours have looked to The Gambia as a source of inspiration, drawing valuable lessons and momentum from its progress. 

Repealing the anti-FGM law would undo the considerable gains made in safeguarding the rights and well-being of women and girls. Furthermore, reversal would potentially weaken the resolve of other nations, undermining the continent’s collective struggle to eradicate FGM and overshadowing many lives throughout West Africa and beyond.

As Africa celebrates the 20th anniversary of the Maputo Protocol, which, under its Article 5 on Ending Harmful Practices, obligates the 44 state parties, including The Gambia, to end female genital mutilation, we urge the government of The Gambia to stay firm and committed to upholding its obligations under this treaty.  We look to The Gambia to continue demonstrating its leadership in the criminalisation of FGM and for the Government to fulfill its obligations to protect the rights and welfare of women and girls, which entails upholding its commitments under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol)

As such:

  1. We request that the Government and the Ministry of Justice impartially uphold the law against FGM and ensure that those who partake in, support, or advocate for FGM face appropriate consequences.
  2. We call for the protection of the rights and well-being of FGM survivors. They merit our unwavering support, empathy, and access to requisite services.
  3. We pledge to tirelessly raise awareness about the detrimental effects of FGM and replace this practice with culturally enriching alternatives that respect the dignity and well-being of women and girls.
  4. We invite all Gambians to stand with us in this endeavor to foster a country where the rights and the dignity of every woman and girl are upheld and defended.