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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A public pledge to end Female Genital Mutilation and Cutting in Gambia

By Alison Parker DARSILAMI, Gambia, 22 June 2009 – The festive atmosphere in this village in the Upper River Region was reminiscent of a wedding. But the singing and dancing was, in fact, part of celebration at which 24 neighbouring villages publicly declared the end of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) practises in their communities. Kobaie Nyabaly a former FGM/C practitioner walked briskly to the podium and boldly gave her testimony before the crowd of more than 600 onlookers, including religious leaders, village chiefs, and youth groups. “There were times when the children collapsed and some even went into a coma,” she recalled of her time practicing FGM/C. “The parents would bring various items to be sacrificed to save their children. We told the parents to go and see the sorcerers, they were told that it was the work of witchcraft. I never knew that my knife was the witch.” Catalyst for change The ceremony, which consisted of many testimonies like Ms. Nyabaly’s, was the second such event and a landmark in the UNICEF-supported Community Development and Empowerment Programme. The programme has been introduced in 80 communities throughout the Upper River Region to give communities an innovative and holistic approach towards social change. Implemented by the non-governmental organization Tostan, the programme focuses on themes of democracy and good governance, human rights and responsibilities, problem solving, hygiene, health, literacy and management skills. The programme uses methods based on African oral traditions such as stories, poetry, theatre and song. Practical literacy skills reinforce these themes, enabling participants to review and share new knowledge with neighbours and relatives. A harmful tradition FGM/C is practiced in about 28 countries in Africa and Western Asia. Gambia is among the worst offenders, with a 78 per cent practice rate among women 15 – 49 years. The practice rate is even higher in the Upper River Region. FGM/C has been linked to serious physical and mental health risks for girls and women – including complications at child birth, maternal deaths, infertility, urinary incontinence, infection and tetanus, amongst others. The 2005 Children’s Act provides a legal frame work to address harmful traditional practices such as early marriage and FGM/C. But the persistence of the practice and the cultural sensitivities surrounding the tradition makes dialogue, evidence-based advocacy and community empowerment the best interventions. Public advocates Public platforms like the one in Darsilami are going a long way towards ending this harmful tradition, as respected practitioners encourage a change in mindset. “When I look back, I cannot undo what I have done,” said Ms. Nyabaly. “The only thing I can do to make up for my past deeds is to become an advocate and call upon all women to come together and collectively bring an end to this practice as the responsibility starts with us.”