Just occasionally our mainstream media makes a passing reference to events in small countries in the Global South. This week there have references to an extremely alarming development concerning Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Gambia, but only because it could impact some of our citizens.

A ban on FGM was introduced in Gambia in 2015, but the practice remains entrenched. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) reported that at least 75% of girls aged 15 to 49 in Gambia have undergone some form of FGM. In August 2023 three women were charged with FGM offences, the first charges in a decade since FGM was banned. An outspoken religious leader objected to the ban and paid the women’s fines. This sparked a movement which may result in Gambia becoming the first country in the world to reverse its law banning FGM.  

In March this year a bill to overturn the ban passed in the Gambian Parliament with 42 votes in favour, four votes to keep it and one abstention. Only five women occupy Gambia’s parliamentary seats. All of the arguments for overturning the ban were made by men, men who have no idea at all as to the pain and suffering caused by FGM and how lives are ruined by it, men who will never experience this mutilation, will never subject their sons to it, and will never witness the suffering undergone by their daughters, hear them scream in agony as they are brutally cut. Sometimes these youngsters pass out with the pain and even die from loss of blood or infection. Soon a final committee will consider the overturning of the ban and there are few obstacles to its passing. Women now fear that powerful religious conservatives will erode other measures aimed to safeguard women and children. They have already targeted laws on some gender protections, including the ban on child marriage.

FGM is about controlling women’s sexuality. There are records of FGM as long ago as fifth century Egypt. Creating Socialism published shocking figures in October last year. According to UNICEF there are more than 230 million girls and women across the globe, in 31 countries, who have been subjected to FGM, many of them under 15 at the time. The WHO estimates that 4.4 million girls are at risk of FGM this year, most of them in Africa, and the number of girls being cut is increasing every year. The procedure is still seen as a rite of passage.

More than 80 countries across the globe have banned FGM, but there is fear that Gambia will change attitudes to FGM elsewhere. Ifrah Ahmed, who runs the Ifrah Foundation in Somalia, says, “The message that Gambia is sending to the continent puts risk on other countries in the region.”

But some countries will renew their opposition to FGM as a result of Gambia‘s decision and increase their efforts to empower girls and young women. In Senegal women are looking at ways to protect their own ban against a reversal. Burkina Faso has proved strong when it comes to implementing the ban and has reduced the rates of FGM by more than half in the last three decades. In Kenya there is pressure to abandon FGM as a rite of passage and replace it with a different ritual. There is also a change in the kind of induction into society in Sierra Leone, despite the country not having its own anti-FGM law.

The item in the British press focused on the threat that London children could be taken to Gambia to be cut. There are more than 35,000 people in the UK Gambian community. It is illegal for family members to take girls born in the UK to Gambia for FGM. But it is possible that during school holidays parents could attempt to take their daughters home for the procedure.

In an unhelpful and extremely odd comment, Foreign Secretary, Lord Cameron, stated recently. “I don’t want Gambian politicians shopping in Harrods if they just voted to cut girls.” Instead of vacuous comments like this, Cameron could do something useful by restoring the grants for FGM centres in this country. The reduced or non-existent grants have led to closures over the last few years. Does Cameron know that an estimated 137,000 women live with the effects of FGM in England and Wales and many girls are still at risk? Funding for fighting for an end to FGM in this country dropped to £432,000 in the year ending April 2020. Of course, the violation of children’s rights and the lifelong damage done to women and young girls by the mutilation of their sexual organs is not a priority. But there is money available to spend on important things, such as the Government’s flawed Rwanda plan, which has already cost £290 million.

Many people cringe when FGM is mentioned and consider it a taboo subject. This vile abuse of women and young girls is still prevalent, and it is still ruining millions of lives.

One thought on “Shock reversal of female genital mutilation ban imminent in Gambia”
  1. This is deeply disturbing, but sadly not a surprise given the stark rise in aggressive misogyny. Education and coverage has never been more important.

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