March 31, 2024

The Gambia on track to reverse ban on female genital mutilation

In the United States, Australia, and Europe there can be no cause more popular, more humane, and more progressive than the abolition of female genital mutilation (FGM). Many countries have banned it; NGOs educate people about it. The United Nations has proclaimed an International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation. 

But that consensus has broken down in The Gambia. The parliament of this Muslim-majority west African country has just voted overwhelmingly to reverse its 2015 ban on FGM. Many of the MPs say that FGM is needed to “uphold religious loyalty and safeguard cultural norms and values”. The bill will be reviewed by a parliamentary committee before a final vote. 

In short, The Gambia could become the first country to defy the international consensus on FGM. 

From a political point of view, the debate over banning FGM presents a conundrum for democratic values. The ban was imposed by an autocrat who ruled from 1996 to 2017, Yahya Jammeh. So citizens of The Gambia face a choice between an unpopular policy forced upon them by a dictator or a popular policy which is democratically adopted.  

As reported in a local newspaper, The Point, one MP declared in the debate: “99.9% disagreed with the banning of female circumcision. This has been in the Women Act since 2015 but not in the Constitution. The Constitution is the supreme law of the people; the freedom of rights and religion law, the National Assembly should not make any law that is against the will of the citizens. The purpose of this is not based on health but rather against our religion.”

Another said: “We cannot condemn our tradition. Even the whites have their own tradition. We cannot impose what the people are not in for.”

However, Jaha Durekeh, the founder of the NGO Safe Hands for Girls, a young woman who has become world-famous for fighting FGM, protests that FGM is not authentically Islamic. “I love Africa and I love my country, and I am not doing this to promote any Western agenda. It is quite sad that our people think that we don’t have the minds to think for ourselves and stand up for our people.”