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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Gambian MP Calls for a Referendum on FGM

October 26, 2010
Abdoulie John

Gambian National Assembly Member Hon. Bora B. Mass of Kiang East Constituency has called for a nationwide referendum on the eradication of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
Honorable Mass believes this will help to address the issues around one of the country’s deeply rooted harmful traditional practices. 

The National Assembly member told JollofNews that it is high time a referendum was organized in order to settle a debate that is dividing Gambians. “Some people are against the practice, but are afraid to voice it out. Only a referendum can help to settle the matter for the betterment of the Gambian people,” he said.
This pronouncement came in the wake of a consultation initiated by the Gambia Committee on Traditional Practices affecting the Health of Women and Children (GAMCOTRAP), an organization that has been leading the fight against FGM since 1984. The goal of the consultation is to facilitate the process for the promulgation and subsequent enactment of a law against FGM in the Gambia as enshrined in all the relevant international, regional and national instruments that the country has ratified. This process will contribute to the eradication of harmful traditional practices that affect the health, wellbeing and rights of women and children, FGM in particular.

For Honorable Bora B. Mass, APRC Member of Parliament, if the “Yes” emerge victorious during the process, it will be a collective idea indicating that the majority of Gambians are against the practice. “A referendum is highly needed to provide legitimacy to any attempt geared towards the banning of FGM,” he said.

This is not the first time that GAMCOTRAP is campaigning for a law reform to ban FGM. Series of activities have been initiated in the past, and are yet to make a significant impact on the position of
the country’s lawmakers, vis-à-vis FGM. The Declaration made in September, 2008, by parliamentarians, calling for a law against the practice is an illustration of this.

According to GAMCOTRAP, the practice is affecting 60 to 80% of women and girls in The Gambia, and that most of the time the justification is based in the Islamic religion or the
Mohammedan tradition.

Arguing that the practice has nothing to do with Islam, Baba Ley, a Muslim cleric who is well known for his long-standing opposition against FGM, said: “Due to the ignorance of our religion, and the sentiments we have for our tribal beliefs, some people have still a conservative stance on this issue.”

Imam Ley pointed to the fact that those who advocate practicing FGM are with the view that a circumcised woman can control her sexuality. But, he said, “God created sex as a gift and wants each and every one of us to like it, to love it, and to enjoy it. Sex is the backbone of marriage. The Holy Quran is asking Muslims to respect it.”

The outspoken Imam denied the fact that FGM is part of the Mohammedan tradition and challenged any Islamic scholar to prove the contrary.

“FGM is a deeply rooted culture, and has been wrongfully related to the tradition of the Prophet of Islam. That is to say that an important issue like this, if it was practiced by any family member of the Prophet, should have been mentioned in the Holy Book,” he argued.

The Gambia was among one the first 25 nations to have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). It has also ratified the African Charter on the Rights of Women and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC), as well as the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

Each of these instruments made reference to traditional and cultural practices that are prejudicial to the status of children and women. Despite the fact that GAMCOTRAP has made tremendous achievements during these past years in putting the debate at the centre stage of the development agenda, the practice persists in some communities. An electoral consultation as anticipated by a Member of Parliament will certainly help to pave the way forward. 

Time Will Tell

October 26, 2010
New Internationalist Magazine
Dawn Starin 

Rainy season upcountry rural Gambia, is green. It is a warm, inviting blend of a thousand greens. It is a mixture of beautiful, calm, peaceful mingling greens.
Digging beneath the surface, however, it is immediately clear that soil erosion is out of control, crop yield is extremely low, people are poor, many children are malnourished, many adults have type 2 diabetes, pneumonia is common, malaria is widespread, especially amongst pregnant women, and the division of labour is anything but equal in this green landscape. Necessities are scarce. Luxuries are almost non-existent. There are very few commodities here, except time. Time is one commodity everyone has plenty of. Time is relative. People take their time. They have nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with. The hours seem to pass more slowly upcountry, especially for the women.
As I look around and soak in the reality of it all I remember that life, for most of the women, is hard; toiling long hours in the fields, tending domestic livestock and vegetable gardens, gathering firewood, fetching water, cleaning clothes, preparing and cooking food, taking care of children and managing household food distribution. The average rural Gambian woman works at least 16 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week. The workload is never-ending and even during the fasting period of Ramadan, the rural women are still working in the fields, still carrying out their domestic chores and still carrying all the heavy loads on their heads.

Women in waiting

Young girls walk along the paths carrying even younger children on their backs and small bundles of firewood on their heads, practising for their future roles. Up here in the green rainy-season fields, it is very clear that so often women are women and girls are women in waiting. And, like their mothers and grandmothers and aunts and older sisters and over 130 million other girls and women worldwide, most of these young girls will be circumcised. Because no formal studies have been done, it is difficult to estimate how many females in the Gambia have been circumcised. Rough estimates run from 68 per cent to 93 per cent.
In the Gambia, female circumcision, also known as female genital mutilation or female genital cutting, usually involves the removal of the clitoris and excision of the labia minora, by a ‘circumcision doctor’, usually the traditional birth attendant. The girl is usually blindfolded, held down and cut with a dirty razor blade. Anaesthetics are not used and the wound is sometimes doused with bleach, covered in cow dung or smeared with Vaseline.
The type and seriousness of the immediate complications depends on the skill of the circumciser, her eyesight, the sharpness of the instrument used and the co-operation of the initiate; a girl who struggles may be more damaged than a girl who does not. In many cases if health problems develop, they are not seen as a consequence of circumcision but blamed on evil spirits or witchcraft.
Because women are often circumcised in groups with the same dirty razor or knife, HIV could be transmitted between them. Certainly there is a higher incidence of HSV2 and bacterial vaginosis among circumcised as opposed to uncircumcised individuals – whether this is due to the same blade being used over and over again is not clear.

Excuses and lies

Female circumcision has been condemned by the World Health Organization, the United Nations, the World Medical Association, the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics, and the American Medical Association. A group of Muslim clerics and scholars in Mauritania has declared a fatwa, or religious decree, against the practice. In 1999 neighbouring Senegal legally banned the practice. Burkino Faso, Central African Republic, Djibouti, Ghana, Guinea and Togo followed suit. But the Gambia refuses to budge.
In the Gambia, female circumcision is widely accepted and practiced. Over the years I have heard many reasons given to justify the practice. Some people claim it is a duty under Islam; some say that it marks the beginning of womanhood; some say that it is for protection against the evil eye; some say that it is done to reduce a woman’s sexual pleasure and stop her from being promiscuous; some say that it is done to ‘stop the ugly clitoris from growing too long and damaging the penis during sex or harming the infant during childbirth’.
This evening I can hear the drums in the neighbouring village heralding the presence of the female ‘circumcision doctor’. One woman from the village tells me that she has not allowed her daughters to be circumcised and that ‘many people are stopping it now because they are aware of the problems it can cause. Radio programmes tell us that it is a violation against children.’ In some cases, however, the radio programmes may be counterproductive.
I know a father of two young girls who feels that ‘the aid agencies are walking into our country with their ideas and theories and calling female circumcision female genital mutilation. They have no right to interfere in our culture. I was not going to have my girls circumcised but as soon as the aid agencies and the radio programmes said that it was wrong I immediately sent my girls to be circumcised. No one, especially not foreigners who know nothing about our traditions or people who talk about sex on the radio, has the right to tell me what to do and not do.’

Community identity

This father is not alone. There are many, men and women, who view Western opposition to female circumcision as just another form of colonial domination and cultural imperialism.
Unfortunately, the anti-female circumcision messages are also having unforeseen effects. Nene, a rural health worker, explains to me that women are now circumcising their babies because young girls are being taught in schools that circumcision ‘is an abuse against their person’. Mothers and grandmothers, unwilling to put up a fight, now arrange for circumcision when the girls are too young to know better and too small to struggle. The idea that circumcision marks an important step into womanhood is gradually being dispelled as younger and younger girls – some of them only a few months old – are being circumcised.
When the circumcision doctor arrives in a village, the women, old and young, rejoice. The girls, almost always unaware of what is about to happen to them, dance and sing. This secret ritual, seen as barbaric in the West and full of immense joy in some parts of the Gambia, binds the women together. It cements them as a group, separates them from the ‘others’ – the men and the world outside. It ties the initiates to their mothers and their grandmothers and all the women before them. The perpetuation of female circumcision occurs because the mothers and grandmothers insist upon it. It is a traditional practice, maintained by women on young girls so that everyone fits in and no one is considered a ‘freak’. In many communities it would be unthinkable to not be circumcised. Community identity is important. One must conform to the community’s rules and traditions. Being circumcised is considered a necessary part of this. The mothers and grandmothers who perpetuate this practice are not doing so out of cruelty. They are simply re-enacting an age-old custom so that their daughters and granddaughters will become accepted members of society.

‘It has no place in today’s world’

Nene feels very strongly that coercion will not work and that ‘this tradition does not represent the best of Gambian culture. It simply represents what has survived from the past and has no place in today’s world’. She has tried to convince many of the circumcisers that this traditional practice must stop. She is not sure, however, how much success she is having. ‘Sometimes,’ she says, ‘I just feel as though it will never end and generations of young girls will continue to be harmed and violated because of this barbaric practice. Village life may seem exotic to some but for many of the young girls and women here it is full of personal violence and for some of them it is full of death.’
But, I think things are slowly changing. And so I ramble off some facts to Nene. Sitting with her, waiting for the Ramadan fast to break so we can sip tea and eat loaves of tapa lapa bread I say, ‘ten years ago no one ever discussed it. Many men did not even know that it occurred. It was a woman’s secret. It being the operative word. The secret word about a secret world. Now female circumcision is discussed by members of the National Assembly, some Islamic religious leaders are actually calling for its elimination, newspapers are printing articles about it and schools are incorporating anti-female circumcision messages into the curriculum. There are even Gambian NGOs campaigning for the sexual and reproductive health rights of women and children and against harmful traditional practices and they have had success in educating the public and getting some traditional birth attendants to put down their circumcision blades. Don’t you think this is encouraging?’
Looking at me, Nene responds: ‘Our village just buried a two-month-old. She bled to death after being circumcised and the mother blamed it on witchcraft. There is nothing positive or encouraging about that.'
An earlier version of this piece appeared in an essay entitled 'Time Will Tell' in The Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, December 2008

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Sudanese Parliament Wants to Prohibit FGM

October 20, 2010
The Social Welfare and Family Committee at the National Assembly has voiced determination to issue a law on prohibiting female genital mutilation (FGM), and formulating a road map to cooperate with the executive organ.
Speaking to the Sudanese Media Center (SMC), the Head of the Committee, Antony Jirafis Yak, said that they will implement the laws, which are protecting children in various states of the country through the executive organs. Yak said that this will help in curbing the negative practices in the society. He said that the work will be done in collaboration with the civil society organizations and concerned ministries to develop the role of monitoring, legislation and execution.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Gambia Detains Head of Anti Female Genital Mutilation Campaigners

October 11, 2010
Freedom Newspaper
Bakary Gibba & Pa N'Derry M'Bai

Authorities in The Gambia have begun cracking down on women rights campaigners against Female Genital Mutilation. The Executive Director of The Gambia Committee Against Traditional Practices (GAMCOTRAP) Dr. Isatou Touray, and her Assistant Amie Bojang Sissoho were arrested on Monday by police for unexplained reasons, the Freedom Newspaper can report.  Both Dr. Touray and Madam Sissoho are currently detained at the police head quarters in the capital city Banjul.

Before close of business Monday, news reached the press community here that the detainees were to be escorted by police to the regional court in Kanifing, but only to be told that the case would be heard on Tuesday.  Dr. Touray and Mrs. Sissoho  are expected to reappear in court on Tuesday for plea taking.
Sources said the detainees were alleged to  have been charged with theft, but would not elaborate further on the main substance of the case.  But prior to their arrest, Dr. Touray, who is known as a prominent anti FGM activist said she was being pursued by the state with people reporting her to the President.  She said some people were "out to get her" with false accusations, but would not elaborate on the nature of the  said accusations. She told delegates at a recent workshop that she was privy to the scheme that was hatched to get her arrested.

Dr. Touray, and her fellow FGM campaigners have recorded a significant success in the area of FGM education in The Gambia. Many local circumcisers have laid down their tools—thanks to GAMCOTRAP’S grassroots education campaign against the deadly cultural practice.

GAMCOTRAP’S efforts to discourage FGM in The Gambia has been greeted with strong opposition by some religious leaders—who openly advocate for female circumcision.  One of them is the controversial  State House Imam Alhagie Abdoulie Fatty, who told Freedom Radio in a recent interview that FGM is not being practiced in The Gambia as painted by local activists.  Imam Fatty accuses FGM activists of blowing things out of proportion.  He said Islam supports  female circumcision.

“ There is nothing wrong to circumcise our kids. Islam supports Female circumcision. Don’t mind the so called FGM activists. They are spreading wrong information about female circumcision.  It is a cultural practice recognized by Islam,” Imam Fatty said.

A survey conducted by GAMCOTRAP says about 80 percent of The Gambian population practice FGM, but that figure had decline significantly thanks to educational awareness campaign spearheaded by the Organization.  Those engage in the practice cite religious, and cultural reasons in support of FGM. But anti FGM campaigners disagree.  They said the practice endangers the life of the girl child. For example, they argued that dozens of young girls are circumcised with one blade, and that in most cases the blade is never sterilized. This to some extent made the circumcised girls vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases known as (STI), including HIV/Aids, the virus that causes aids.  

According to anti FGM activists, some of the circumcised kids died during the process. They said FGM violates the right of the girl child. They also opined that  the practice undermines women’s sexual feelings.
Up to the time of going to press Dr. Isatou Touray, and Amie Bojang Sissoho were still detained at the police head quarters in Banjul. They are expected to appear in court on Tuesday in Kanifing.  They have not been accorded with the right to bail.