LinguereSpeaks: Storytelling As A Means of Empowering Girls And Women

Statement written for and read at launching of ‘Keep The Dream Alive’, a book authored by young Gambian,  Charlotte Ajuwa Smith.



My name is Jama and I’m a writer. It is a great honour for me to be a part of this very important gathering, as we not only launch the book ‘Keep The Dream Alive’, but also celebrate the talent and bravery of Charlotte Ajuwa Smith.

I say talent and there may be no questions about that, but I understand there may be some of us wondering what is so brave about writing a book, publishing and launching it into the market. Isn’t that supposed to be an easy thing, especially in today’s world where we have access to relatively more resources and platforms than before?

That last part is true, but access to these resources is still not equitable, and therefore, some sections of society fare better than others. As with most sectors of growth and development, girls and women are dealt the lesser hand when it comes to access. This is due to a number of reasons, and key among them are the social and cultural environments in which we raise our girls, who grow up to be women.

I look back to the periods of our history where the education of the girl child was seen to be of little or no significance. Where we were taught that the place of a girl is in the home, where she is taught the skills that will make her desirable for marriage and ready to keep a home. Her value lay in how expertly she handled domestic chores and how great a home she could make.

This is not to say that there is no value in learning these skills, as they benefit all of society; the problem begins when we see this role is all a girl – a woman – is good for, therefore neglecting the whole package of wonderful gifts they have been given by God.

One of my favourite writers, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, once said and I quote “We teach our girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to our girls: You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful but not too successful, otherwise you will threaten the man.”

How is this relevant to our conversation today, you may ask. First, because she is a storyteller who has taken it upon herself to create a strong example of what an educated and enlightened girl can grow up to become; the spaces we can navigate in our world, and the opportunities we can create for the millions of young girls who are still tied to society’s limits of who and what they can be. She is keeping the dream alive through the stories she tells and the speeches she gives. That is empowerment.

In The Gambia, we do not have a scarcity in the number of women living lives that tell stories of achievement, resistance, resilience and a breaking away from the norm. We are seated in a theatre that was established by one of such women, in the person of Aunty Janet Badjan-Young, creating a centre of excellence for young men and women in The Gambia to explore their talents and grow the creative arts in the country.

We have many more examples of women writing stories that speak to the humanity of girls and women, leaving their footprints (or can I say handprints) in the narrative of our lives – past and present. Again, this is important.

Comparatively, we may still have many more men telling our stories, in oral and written form and using other media around the world. However, there is a growing shift in the ownership of our narratives, and therefore, the kinds of stories that are produced and shared about girls and women.

Now more than ever, we have an opportunity to read and discover stories that provide more empowering and dignified images of girls and women, especially African. With the new generation of writers and storytellers, especially female, there is even greater hope of discovering stories that we can easily relate to, and of characters that look like us and share similar cultures with us.

I go back to Chimamanda in her TED Talk entitled ‘The Danger of the Single Story’. In this talk she says and I quote, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are not untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

The stories that have been told of us may not necessarily be untrue; the roles of the female characters may be roles that we have assumed at one point or the other. However, when we continue to create these roles, we are teaching the girls and women that there are limits to what they can become and this is what we will continue to embody, perhaps never discovering how much more potential we have.

In the few years since I started writing actively and taking my stories seriously, I have learnt lessons that I continue to share. I may still be young and I still have a long way to go in this journey, but each day comes with a learning moment, each one leaving me with more determination to pursue the course. What started as casual storytelling for me has morphed into a journey of telling my story and the stories of other girls and women that I encounter. This has become one of my life’s missions, and though it can be challenging, it is also very fulfilling.

When I write, I am aware that I do not only write for myself. I write for the many people who encounter my work and often find inspiration to also break out of their shells and tell their stories. In doing so, we are reclaiming the narrative of ourselves and are telling our stories from our perspective. We are cancelling the danger of the single story. We are dispelling the myths surrounding our experiences and are telling the world that there is more to us than the boxes we are forced and fit into. We are unwrapping the gifts we have been blessed with, and are sharing them with the bigger world out there. This is what hope looks like. For the next generation of girls and women, this is significant.

Today is significant, as it is yet another manifestation of what we can do when we have the necessary structures and support spaces we need. I believe Charlotte has achieved a milestone, not just for herself, but for every girl and woman, in and out of this hall. In the audience today, there may be a girl, a young woman, looking at her today and telling herself ‘I can do it too’. Ladies and gentlemen, that is the empowerment we need. The ones that come from living examples of possibility, of opportunity, of talent, of grace and of success.

Today, I urge everyone present here today to help in keeping this chain growing. There is no measure of the significant progress we all can enjoy if we encourage everyone in society, regardless of their gender, ethnic group, social standing or other man-made qualification, to reach for their goals and meet their fullest potential.

I take this opportunity to congratulate the author and everyone who’s supported her through this journey. I say this on behalf of the girls and women who will read this book and gain a stronger conviction and clarity of the path ahead of them. It is one thing to have a dream; it is another thing to keep it alive and turn it to reality. I am without doubt that the book we shall launch today will create another road of opportunity, belief, confidence and self-assurance for the many who read it.

We are the present and the future, and to build our country, our work needs to be supported and celebrated. We are the dream; help us keep us alive.

I thank you for your attention.

Jama Jack

17 July 2016

© Ruth Adong Olango

She Never Asked For It

She was one…

Bubbly. A ball of energy, leaving her mother breathless and everyone else infected by her hearty laughter. She was a joy to be around, easy to pick up, warm to cuddle. She was easy to love.

She was three…

Standing on her own two feet. The wobbles had disappeared and her legs ran around on errands and in play. She was navigating the world with fresh eyes, a mouth with more teeth and a tongue that professed words that had grown clear from the mist of her two-year old mumbling. She was introduced to the curves of the O and the waves of the W, keeping count of her progress on ten fingers and, where necessary, ten toes.

She was five…

She had mastered her ABCs, flew past counting to a hundred and was now stringing words on paper and working magic with numbers. Sometimes, she needed the bottle tops to fill in spaces where her fingers and toes would no longer suffice. Other times, her frustration budded in the lines scratched over a word, the number of lines mirroring the attempts it took to spell a word right. She was fascinated by words and numbers, by what they could do, and by how she could hold command over them through her thoughts. She was taken on adventures through the colourful pages of the books she read; and when she returned, plotted out her own adventures and painted pictures of the many journeys she would take.  Her imagination ran wild.

She was seven…

She overheard the whispers at home and even in school. She was smart, they said. Perhaps, too smart for a girl her age. She spoke of things that confused her peers and asked questions that left her parents and teachers scrambling for the right words. She soon became tired of playing house and would rather lose herself in yet another book, going on another journey that did not just limit her to the house and an hour of playing Mother. The whispers told her she knew too much, too soon. Yet, she knew she was still a child and there was so much more she didn’t know, and so many lessons she still had to learn.

She was still seven…

She wasn’t ready for the one lesson she would learn but still not be able to absorb and understand, at least for another decade. It happened so quickly, so quietly and would gradually become her normal. There was no sense to be made from that first time, and still none from the many that followed, each one ending with a promise of silence, of words to never utter, of pictures that would stay in her head, banned from the pages that nestled the plans of her adventures. She wasn’t ready for this lesson. No one is.

Something was wrong with this lesson that she had been forbidden to share, but all the light bulbs in her head weren’t bright enough to guide her to understanding it. Resigned to the fact that this was one of those questions without answers, she endured and fell into the routine.

She was eleven…

In school, she went through new lessons that taught her new things about her body. She discovered new names for parts that were just there and some that she had been taught to never mention. She would learn about the birds and the bees, but in the absence of that metaphor, her lesson brought her a new revelation of how she was created and the journey to her birth. She had started learning French and was struggling to understand the accented letters. Yet, when this lesson sank in, the accents in déjà vu slowly made sense. The words, however, remained stuck in her throat, further squeezing the lively, energetic child out of her being.

Promises were made to be kept. Promises were made to be broken, too. She kept her promise, but her soul was broken. The windows to her soul, that pair of brown glass, looked perfect and guarded her broken pieces. The world did not need to know. She kept her promise.

She turned twenty…

She had seen and heard enough to understand that over time, she was guarding her secret, not keeping her promise. The world had taken her through a roller coaster of experiences and emotions that taught her more than her books ever could. In the years leading to her new age, she watched and learned, accepting a new understanding of that one lesson. She knew that promises came from a place of love, of care, of concern, of will. What she had guarded for those many years was a shield for the teacher she never wanted, a cover for the lesson she never needed.

Deep down, she knew it was protection for herself. It was a cold world and she had seen many like her pushed back into corners for simply doing the right thing and letting their throats spit out the words in storage. She did not want to be another liar, another desperate girl trying to bring a man down, another woman crying for attention. She did not want to be pointed at and referred to as ‘that girl’, the stigma sticking to her skin, where the shield once covered. She did not want to be the source of shame for her family; their honour was more important than her broken pieces.

What are those broken pieces anyway? She hears news of another taking that lesson, and tells herself she won’t be the last. She doesn’t deserve the extra attention. She doesn’t deserve love and protection, what with those who were meant to protect her breaking down the walls of her innocence and changing her life forever. She knows to pick herself up and tape the pieces together, falling back on words for healing, yet never really feeling the balm soothe her scars.

She was thirty…

She held the broken vase in her hand, the other half carefully wedged in his throat, his call for help inaudible. She turned to look at the little girl crouched in a corner and when their eyes met, she was staring at herself. Fear gave way to anger, and the many words that had lodged in her throat came spilling out, even when the world did not want to listen.

She was only seven. She did not ask for it. It wasn’t her dress. She did not have to keep that promise. She was not begging for attention. She was not responsible for his safety or for her family’s honour. She never knew what name to call it. Is rape too harsh? Would molestation be milder? She still doesn’t know. She needs more books.

She was made of pain. She was broken. And from the pieces of that soul, she had learnt to love again. Enough to reach out for that one girl and save her from the life she now lived; and enough to rid the world of the one teacher and his lesson, both of whom were never wanted or needed.



Featured Image © Ruth Adong Olango


FGM and The Media in The Gambia: A Turning of The Tides

The power of the media in shaping perceptions and influencing public opinion is well-known. The media have transcended time and age, going through various tools and forms, and stayed true to its influencing power.

The fourth estate, housing mainly traditional media, has opened a path for what is now known as the fifth estate, a home for non-mainstream and sometimes unconventional media forms and expressions. Without a doubt, this has had a considerable effect on public opinion, with freedom of expression and easier dissemination of otherwise ‘unpopular’ information as a benchmark.

As with the famous egg and hen debate, we have witnessed similar discussions attempting to determine if the media influences social norms and practices, or whether the opposite would be more accurate. I believe it goes both ways, and this belief was solidified when I did my research for my undergraduate dissertation on the representation of women in the media. However, with increasing mutations in the way we communicate, I would think the media has a greater influence on our daily living and, as such, is one of the most powerful tools in advocacy on various social issues.

FGM Banned in The Gambia

On November 24th, 2015, The Gambia woke up to news of an Executive pronouncement banning the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in the country, with immediate effect. The announcement was met with various reactions, but what stood out most were the celebrations from the many activists, groups and organisations that have worked tirelessly for over three decades, calling for an end to the practice in The Gambia. The pronouncement was not an end in itself, but it was a huge means to this end that many have fought for, and can continue to work towards with even more hope for success.

Naturally, these celebrations came with several questions on how much the pronouncement will change, in the absence of specific legislation banning the practice and stipulating the penalties on those who refuse to adhere to this law. This was obviously a sure way of ensuring a permanent legal provision, creating more opportunities for activists and rights advocates to carry out their work. Barely a month later, the National Assembly of The Gambia enacted a bill to this effect, making The Gambia one of eighteen African countries banning the practice of FGM.

The legislation on FGM does not only give renewed hope to end the practice in The Gambia. It comes against a backdrop of great controversy, given the sensitive nature of FGM, and the cultural and religious links that have been used as grounds for its perpetuation. Activists and advocates have received much backlash and opposition – sometimes violent – from individuals and communities that support the practice and guard it jealously. Some have been “persecuted and prosecuted” for their stance against the practice, and for openly denouncing it for its harmful effects on girls and women. For many of these people, this is enough reason to celebrate a public display of political will to end the practice. The opportunities are many, and the channels for advocacy to end FGM have increased, especially on mainstream media. This has not always been the case.

The case of the media

In May 1997, a new GAMTEL policy on media treatment of the issue of female genital mutilation advanced that “the broadcast by Radio Gambia (RG) or Gambia Television (GTV) of any programmes which either seemingly oppose female genital mutilation or tend to portray medical hazard about the practice is forbidden, with immediate effect. So also are news items written from the point of view of combating the practice.” The policy went on to direct that “GTV and RG broadcasts should always be in support of FGM and no other programmes against the practice should be broadcast.”

This policy meant that efforts at the grassroots level, by organisations like the pioneering GAMCOTRAP, would be limited to the communities and not disseminated to a wider audience, possibly leading to more impact. What would have been a channel for easier access to the Gambian people then risked becoming a platform to counter the efforts of these groups in the communities, opening more girls to the possibility of being cut. The negative impact on the campaign at the time is evident, while highlighting a restriction on the media’s role of not just entertaining, but informing and educating the people.

In the years that followed, work to influence the abandonment of FGM in The Gambia continued, and this included training of media personnel to increase coverage on the harmful effects of the practice and the work of civil society organisations in that regard. Notably, there was still a huge gap in coverage which, when filled, would have contributed greatly to the campaign.

Additionally, the nation has been witness to pronouncements by a religious leader, calling for a ban on activism against FGM in The Gambia. The same individual has made regular appearances on the media, extolling the benefits of FGM and advancing the idea that it is a religious obligation. The effects of his statements will be left to your conclusion, given the perceived religious nature of Gambian people and daily living.

In recent years, however, there has been a significant change, perhaps attributable to the increased intensity of the campaign, especially featuring youth voices that were hitherto least prominent in the movement. The use of social media to engage in conversation and share messages on FGM should not be overlooked. There has also been a notable increase in media coverage of FGM since the First National Youth Forum on FGM in The Gambia in 2014, jointly organised by Think Young Women and Safe Hands for Girls in partnership with organisations like GAMCOTRAP, TOSTAN, Wassu Gambia Kafo and other remarkable actors in the field. Stories on related events made it to national TV, but it important to note that these were often broadcast under the umbrella of Gender-Based Violence, often shying away from the specific issue of FGM.

On more than two occasions, as part of a cultural show on the channel, female circumcision was featured as a rite of passage, with images of celebrations in selected communities. Upon examination, this was a statement of support, even if very subtle, and did not do well to complement the work being done to end the practice. Featuring the celebrations as a cultural activity to be valued might have contributed to convincing viewers, even further, that FGM is a culture that should be appreciated and perpetuated, despite the information on its harmful effects on girls and women. There was still so much more work to be done, and little time to do it all.

Welcoming a New Dawn

As expected, following the Executive pronouncement and the consequent enactment of specific legislation against FGM, there has been a flood of stories on both print and audio-visual media in The Gambia and abroad. This is a significant turn, and a commendable one, especially since efforts are now being shifted to intensify sensitisation , including on the new legislation. The change on the local front will go a long way in raising more awareness and hopefully influencing a voluntary abandonment of the practice, which may be more effective and permanent than abandonment resulting from the new deterrent. The local media is indeed catching up to this new wave.

On the night of January 16th, GRTS aired one of its most interesting shows, “The Forum”, which features conversations on social issues, guided by professionals and experts on the subject. It was a pleasant surprise to learn that the night’s discussion would focus on FGM, and would feature opinions from professional health personnel, including one of the most renowned gynaecologists in The Gambia, at present. It promised to be an interesting discussion, further enriched by the phone-in feature that gave viewers the chance to call and share their thoughts on the topic. The expectations were met, and the discussions looked deeply at the effects of FGM especially on the physical, psychological and psychosocial wellbeing of girls.

When the phone lines opened, a few viewers called in to express appreciation for the program, as it had given them a new understanding of the dangers of FGM. One lady remarked that it may be too late for those who’d already undergone the practice, but there is still a big opportunity to protect the girls who are currently at risk. Judging from the calls that followed, this was not an isolated belief and the protection of those girls is a possibility to be explored, with the new legislation as solid backing.

The admission reminded me of the reactions of participants at the aforementioned youth forum, when they were exposed to images showing the health effects of FGM on girls for the first time. Outlooks were changed and resolves were strengthened, fuelled by a new understanding of its gravity. This, in essence, represented the power of the media in changing perceptions.


While the next few years will test the effectiveness of these new provisions and the commendable change, there is reason to remain hopeful for an FGM-free generation. It takes off from the decisions made today and the manner in which work is done to this effect, bringing together all actors and stakeholders from government and civil society to ensure targets are met and girls are protected from harm.

Addressing the issue of FGM also means examining support mechanisms for the girls and women who now live with the complications of the practice. A lot of attention is focused on prevention, but it is also important to look into care and restorative measures to facilitate the regaining of dignity and the maintenance of good health.

The more awareness raised among the people, the greater the chances of eliminating this practice and ensuring women fully enjoy their human rights, especially to life, dignity, sexual and reproductive health among others.

The media is the major gateway to raising this awareness and awakening people to the realities of Female Genital Mutilation and its effects on the health and wellbeing of women and girls. This new turn will go a long way to complement sensitisation efforts in communities, and contribute to more success in the campaign to end FGM in The Gambia.

As highlighted, the ban on the practice in The Gambia has opened up new opportunities, and that is worthy of a moment of celebration, as the relevant actors take the next steps to realising concrete change.

The New Year Resolution That Worked

The year 2015 has been an interesting one for me, taking me through all of my elements and rocking up a myriad emotions in more ways than one.

I am not usually one to make New Year Resolutions, for the simple reason that they are pushed to the back of my mind by reality and, therefore, rendered considerably pointless. However, at the beginning of 2015, I made one resolution and pinned it on my Twitter profile.


twitter resoultion

You may ask why post it on Twitter and not on the walls of my room, or somewhere more visible. My resolution was inspired by the Twitter trend #FeministNewYearResolutions and through the course of the year, has been a great reminder for me, as I navigate spaces with my voice and thoughts as a feminist.

Making that promise to myself, and to the world which followed that trend, ensured that I shared my views on feminism and a great many issues affecting women and girls without reservation, and with no apology.

The online ‘streets’ can be especially ruthless for those sharing unpopular views that diverge from the usual conservative life values we have been taught to embrace as normal.

Identifying as a feminist has brought me my fair share of vitriol and trolling, especially online, with suggestions that my choice is an anomaly because feminism goes against my African values. Ha!

In past years, trolling and (disrespectful) opposition to my views would get to me and sometimes lead me to question my beliefs, lending credibility to what I have now come to consider as no different from noise. Not this year; and I daresay the conscious decision and the thought process that went into coming up with that resolution helped me in holding the fort strong and remaining unmoved by the negativity.

Proclaiming my feminist identity, especially on Twitter, took to a new level when I changed my name to Jollof Feminist, further strengthening the feminist branding of my page, especially for the benefit of new followers. This change, in itself, warranted comments that I would rather not delve into, but choose to replace with how they made me feel.

A few months ago, I was in conversation with one of the members of the diplomatic corps in The Gambia, and our discussion centered on Gambian women’s voices online and the reception to this new and growing normal. We explored the negative reactions to feminism as a concept or way of life, and I had another eureka moment.

I came to the realisation that people are not as angry about feminism itself, as they are at feminists, especially when these latter happen to be women. Their opposition, I concluded, came from a place of discomfort and displeasure at seeing women use their voices to fill up our spaces, as opposed to the previous norm of being seen and never heard. My conclusion was reinforced by the opposite reactions I saw towards men speaking on the same issues, even when simply regurgitating opinions and think pieces from women in the same spaces.

This is not to say that some male feminists do not get attacked for their views, but this can never be compared on the same scale as the attacks on female feminists. This understanding awakened a new fire in me, solidifying the resolution to remain unapologetic about my being a feminist and, consequently, my feminist views and opinions.

Without a doubt, it has been a challenging year and I have found myself in more debates on feminism and, especially, sexism than I care to enumerate. Sometimes, the exchanges would get too heated, but I pride myself in the calmness and focus with which I now maneuver through them, ensuring that my points are made in all respect, but my views are not watered down and trampled upon as irrelevant or an overreaction.

A friend once asked me if it was all worth it, and if I wasn’t bothered by the negative attention I would probably get from engaging in debates and arguments online. My response was simple: it took me a lot of learning and decisions to get here and I am very much convinced about the necessity of what I do. If there’s anything worthy I am doing, it is this.

Reading through this piece, one would think that it has all been ice, blood and fire with my experiences as a vocal feminist online. However, I am grounded in reality by the many positive reactions to these efforts, directly and indirectly.

I have been humbled and honoured in equal measure by the many young women who reach out to express gratitude for these efforts, and explain how it has inspired them to speak up about their experiences and struggles, as well as those of other women and girls.

I have also engaged with several men, young and old, who acknowledge the importance of our voices and our stories, and who vow to be more sensitive especially in navigating our shared spaces on the grounds of their male privilege.

I had an acquaintance reach out to say he has become more mindful of what he says about women when he is around me. I took that as a first step to change, while making obvious my wish that this would become normal for him and he wouldn’t require my presence to check what he says and does, in relation to women.

I have been lucky to find and engage with other feminists, especially young Africans, who have provided more learning opportunities for me, and even more affirmation of the importance of the work we do in simply being ourselves and making our voices heard. The solidarity on Twitter is priceless and the experience is one I am truly grateful for this year.

And for me, that is enough worth and result for the work being done by the many like me, who have decided to no longer be silenced. Discovering the power in our voices and the greater power in using them to tell our own stories has been enough motivation to remain true to my promise and ensure my resolution was seen through to the end of the year.

Where reality has often pushed previous resolutions to the bin in my head, this year has been different. Perhaps, this is because I made a resolution that was in complete alignment with my daily living and activities, both at work and through private ventures. In alignment with my beliefs and what I have come to accept and embrace as the purpose of my life, for as long as it is needed in our world.

I made a resolution at the start of the year, and through the course of living it, I have been blessed with countless experiences and lessons, each one reaffirming the validity of my choices and the necessity of my life’s work. I would cheat and make this my resolution for the coming year, but it would be a repetition of something that has already taken firm root in my being and would flourish even without a reminder.

In 2015, I refused to apologise and stood firm with my beliefs, but I still believe I can be more, do more, give more and embrace the wholeness of my being.

So for 2016, I choose one phrase to guide me: BE INTENTIONAL. In everything I choose to be, say, do and be a part of. Let’s see how this one works out.

As we go into another year, with resolutions or not, I thank you for taking this journey with me and for reading my blogs, even when they come from a very confused place. I am truly appreciative of the support I get through Linguere and pray that it will lead to the realisation of the plans I have to make this bigger.

Have a very awesome 2016!🙂


FGM Ban In The Gambia: The Beginning of An End 

Today marks the beginning of another 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, an annual commemoration that runs from November 25th to December 10th each year.

In The Gambia, this year’s commemorations dawned with great news through an Executive pronouncement, Monday evening, banning the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in the country, with immediate effect. The news, broken by the Minister of Information and Communication Infrastructure, Sheriff Bojang, on his Facebook page received a generally positive reaction, especially for organisations, activists and advocates that have dedicated their time, resources and lives to the cause of ending the practice over the past three decades.

However, there are also comments on caution and expressions of opposition to the decision; a reaction that is not surprising, given the context and the long traditional history of the practice of FGM in The Gambia. There are ongoing discussions looking at the way forward for the campaign and efforts to end FGM in The Gambia.

Does the Executive pronouncement bring an end to the work of the different organisations, activists and advocates? Is there a need to celebrate this development? Can victory be declared now, and attention shifted to other issues affecting women and girls in The Gambia?

The responses to these questions may vary from one individual or organisation to another, perhaps based on the level of understanding and involvement in the activism and advocacy to end the practice. There may be differences in opinion, but a growing sentiment in the activist circles is the need to translate the pronouncement into specific legislation and consequent enforcement, for greater impact.

Over the past three decades, organisations like GAMCOTRAP have led the advocacy for a law banning the practice of FGM, but efforts were met with negative results. The latest was the rejection of the proposed anti-FGM bill by the National Assembly, pushing back hopes to see legislation passed against FGM in The Gambia. From this context, this pronouncement is one to celebrate, as it displays a political will to ensure the practice ends in The Gambia, possibly leading to action from parliamentarians in line with the various international legal instruments protecting the rights of women and girls. Due process needs to be followed, and the different stakeholders should strike now and push for legislation following this pronouncement. The ground has been set and there have been expressions of support from several National Assembly Members, as captured in this vox pop on the Daily Observer Newspaper.

There has also been a very commendable turn in the media in the past year, with an increase in coverage on FGM, especially in the newspapers. These range from reports on events to opinion pieces examining FGM from different perspectives including health, culture, religion and human rights. The importance of the media in shaping perspectives and public opinion is common knowledge, and their role in the campaign to end FGM is crucial.

Over the past decades, perhaps due to the consideration of FGM as sensitive and taboo, little media attention has been given to the issue, especially on sensitisation regarding the negative effects of the practice on women and girls. Following the pronouncement, the Daily Observer’s issue of Wednesday, 25th November 2015 hosts a front-page feature, a Page 3 coverage, an editorial and a full spread vox-pop. Anyone who has followed media coverage of FGM knows this is a huge turn, even if desired at an earlier time. Other publications have featured stories on the issue and this has contributed to a heightened awareness on FGM, even if met with surprising reactions to the statistics on prevalence in The Gambia.

Increasing awareness of the public on the dangers of FGM and its effects on girls and women is the sure way to changing attitudes and influencing an abandonment of the practice. FGM is a deeply-rooted culture and its practice has prevailed with a justification along cultural, traditional and religious lines. As with many other cultural and traditional practices, there needs to be a shift in perception of the practice, for abandonment to become a true reality.

The pronouncement on the ban is a great first step, but it is only the beginning of the end for this campaign. Activists and advocates still have the very important responsibility of raising awareness on the realities of FGM, backed by evidence and data from the different perspectives. The most effective means of finally eliminating the practice will come from an understanding of its consequences and the voluntary decision of people in communities to protect girls and women from harm. Enforced legislation will be a guideline, but care must be given to the possible deviations from the law, as is seen with other issues that are considered illegal.

Using the law as a deterrent might lead to a new phenomenon of practicing undercover, to avoid the penalties associated with these violations. This can have serious implications, with a continuing risk of complications for the girls, as well as problems in collating accurate data to track progress made in the years following the ban. Where the practice is not done undercover, there is the risk of girls being transported to countries where there will be no legal implications for the practice. This is a current phenomenon in countries like Senegal, where the practice of FGM is against the law. The subject of vacation cutting has also emerged, where girls are generally brought to African countries from America and Europe for cutting, to avoid facing the law in these countries.

These are a few challenges that could arise with the provision of a specific legislation on FGM, and therefore highlights the need for continued work from all fronts to ensure a more holistic solution in line with ending FGM in a generation. There is need for more intensive work to make sure the gains made over the past decades are not erased and community outreach is still at the heart of most efforts to eliminate the practice of FGM. Communication strategies should be reviewed to project positive messages, taking into consideration new developments, avoiding intimidation and promoting dialogue in communities, for more impact. This will definitely yield long-term results, while drawing attention to the human rights and protection perspective for all girls currently at risk.

It is evident there is still a lot of work to do, and a lot more ground to cover. However, there is enough reason to celebrate this new change as it has clearly contributed to a huge shift in opinion from various duty bearers that had, hitherto, taken the backseat. It is a huge step for all involved in the campaign to end FGM, and should be a guide to creating new strategies and actions that will lead to legislation as well as effective outreach and sensitisation, especially targeting practising communities.

This is a positive start to the 16 days campaign in The Gambia and I extend congratulatory wishes to everyone who has been involved, at whatever level, in the campaign to end the practice of FGM in The Gambia.

The executive pronouncement banning the practice of FGM in The Gambia is the beginning of an end, and the next steps taken will determine how much success will be registered. The true winners will be the women and girls of The Gambia, especially those at risk of FGM.

#DGTrends: Women’s Political Participation Beyond Clapping And Dancing

“Youth Participation and Leadership in Political Parties in Africa: Special Focus on Young Women” was the theme of a national youth dialogue hosted by the National Youth Parliament of The Gambia on Saturday 24th November, 2015. . The event, held at the American Corner Comium, was organized as part of a series in various African countries, leading to the fourth High Level Dialogue on Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance in Africa, initiated by the Department of Political Affairs of the African Union Commission.

Think Young Women/2015

Think Young Women/2015

The Gambia dialogue brought together about 50 youth from the different political parties, youth organisations working on issues related to the theme, the local media and representatives of partner organisations. The dialogue kicked off with a short opening ceremony, where these latter gave brief statements, before participants were placed into four working groups, each with a specific focus topic for discussion and consequent presentation.

An effort to live-tweet the discussions, and contribute to the growing online documentation of the dialogues across Africa, led me to float over the four groups, trying to capture the most pertinent points, while gaining a better understanding of The Gambia’s political environment.

Participants deliberated on the theme, with specific discussions on women’s political participation, youth political participation, women’s wings, and youth wings of political parties in The Gambia. One could easily feel the energy in the room as the youth, especially representing the different political parties, shared their experiences and debated various issues in response to the questions tabled before them.

There were moments, when one of the groups got distracted by party politics, as each party sought to highlight its work, but their unity of purpose and the agreement that more needed to be done for youth in politics, eventually drew them back to the task at hand. I was naturally drawn to the two groups discussing questions specific to women’s political participation, and couldn’t help noting a familiar refrain.

Participation, Not Representation

‘Women are not interested in politics or political leadership’ is a statement often heard, when the status quo, where men hold dominance at the helm of affairs, is challenged. The veracity of this statement, I believe, is relative to where we find ourselves, even if passed on as a global truth. One of the women present gave a succinct distinction between participation and representation, noting that women in The Gambia are the largest group of participants in the country’s politics. An observation that was unanimously affirmed by the youth at the dialogue.

However, it is important to note that their participation does not necessarily translate to the effective creation and implementation of policies relevant to the cause of women. Even when women do participate in politics, it is usually on the sidelines, as cheerleaders for men occupying positions of power and making the decisions on all issues. Women are still greatly limited to fulfilling tasks that fit the traditional gender roles which, I daresay, have led us to this point of attempting to diagnose the reasons behind the low political participation of women.

Wielding the power of mobilization and coördination, women are greatly involved in all preparations leading to the moments that truly matter, handling the cooking and feeding of the masses, the cheering and dancing for prospective male leaders, and forming the bulk of the people dressed in ashobee to show support and solidarity. Yet, they remain on the fringes, sometimes never knowing or understanding the proceedings of political meetings and gatherings, where key decisions are made.

At an event in Uganda this summer, attendees raised the issue of women participating in conferences as singers and dancers, and never having the chance to get into the conference halls to use these same voices to their benefit. As a result, their contributions are not reflected in the final resolutions and decisions made, thereby placing a dampener on their hopes to have their voices represented, and their problems addressed at these gatherings.

The exception to this norm is seen in the few women who rise to secure and maintain a place at the decision-making table. We refer to them as having broken the glass ceiling, and keeping hope alive that more women will make it to those positions, leading to more impactful change in the lives of the majority of women who do not have that opportunity. Representation matters, but how well-represented are women and girls in political spaces, even by the women who have a seat at ‘the table’?

It is worthy of note that not all of these women are elected to these positions, the majority making that ascent through nominations. This begs the question: who do they really represent? A lot of talk has emerged on increasing the number of women in political leadership spaces, and promoting its longevity through a quota system. This is done, of course, with the assumption that the more women we have in these spaces, the better chances we will have of addressing issues related to women at the policy level. The reality shows us different, with tokenism being the order and many women in these positions subscribing to the views and voices of their male counterparts, who are still in the majority. Otherwise, they are ‘yes women’ to the views of the political parties they represented, as opposed to the many people who placed them in those positions, if they were elected.

A solution was suggested: more women should rise to the occasion and contest elections, starting at local government and moving up to the presidential race. Though ideal, this suggestion ignores a multitude of factors and conditions, especially social, which could be a limitation to realizing this idea.

Social Factors Need To Be Taken Into Consideration

Much hope is placed on the youth to create a new generation of leaders that challenge and close the gender disparities in politics, especially with effective and impactful representation. Encouragement is doled out in generous amounts to young women, reminding them that the past is gone and the future is theirs to shape.

This is a positive step towards closing the gaps, but it should be proffered on realistic grounds, taking into consideration the social set-up of our various societies, and how this affects the leadership aspirations of girls and young women. Gender inequality in all spheres hinders progress and has a consequent effect on the issue at hand.

We live in societies where the role of a girl is defined even before birth, and her life is set to follow the path created without her contributions, and with little regard to her preferences and ambitions. It begins with the provision of quality education for the girl child, which has, for a long time, been trashed in favour of teaching girls to handle domestic responsibilities in preparation for marriage and child-bearing.

Progress has been recorded in this regard, but there is still a gap in the figures for enrolment and those for completion. This is due to several reasons, ranging from financial inability to the intentional decision to pull girls out of school and marry them off. For those who do complete secondary school, many are still denied the opportunity to access higher education, based on the belief that too many professional qualifications may render them undesirable to men, for marriage.

From a very early age, our societies teach girls to be followers, to embrace their place as secondary citizens in most spaces, and to submit to the will and desires of the men in their lives, including fathers, brothers, husbands etc. Girls are taught to be seen and not heard, to use their voices only in ‘women’s spaces’, and to accept their conditions and struggles without much objection. The few who dare to break these laws are referred to as rebels, disrupting the natural order and attempting to get rid of our traditional values.

We cannot expect girls who grow up in communities where leadership has a male face, to suddenly understand that they can be leaders too. The long-term social conditioning has a lasting effect on how far girls go and how much they can achieve, both in personal and public circles. There is an urgent need for change in the messages we send to our children, taking into consideration the effects it will have on their lives. When girls are empowered and raised to believe they are as equally human as men, and have the right to equal opportunities, we create a generation of socially aware, independent-minded young women who will no longer be limited by society’s dictates.

And Still We Hope…

Achieving gender equality in politics is not impossible. There is a growing will to make this a reality, backed by numerous initiatives to facilitate the process. The world can be witness to a transition that opens a path for more women to assume positions of power, and fully participate in decision-making, to advance the cause of women. The necessary structures – social, economic, political- need to be put in place to ensure that these visions are realized.

The involvement of young people will contribute a lot to this process, bringing in new realities where a conscious population is the norm, and everyone is aware of their role in the political leadership of their communities. Social constructs that hinder the progress of women in leadership should be reviewed and revised to ensure access to equal opportunities. Access to data should be improved and conditions made favorable to ease meaningful participation.

The initiatives to involve youth and women in political leadership are commendable, but if these basic challenges are not addressed, we may be hanging on to rhetoric for a while longer, without a chance at progressive change. At best, we will continue to see a minimal number of women ascending to power, with little impact felt in the lives of the majority of women.

The support has been immense, the voting power is evident and the contributions of women in politics, as it stands, are appreciated. However, it is time to move away from the politics of clapping and dancing, to contesting elections and taking our rightful places as leaders beside men. In concert, more progress and development will be registered for our different communities and States, as evidenced in places where women are increasingly active in politics.

Beauty is In The Mind of The Owner

I am seated in a large classroom in Wellingara, surrounded by a group of young Gambians who recently started a new organisation for kids and youth. I was invited by a friend and a Starfish International  alum, to give a motivational talk based on my experiences as a child activist, youth leader and young Gambian feminist.

IMG_6054The night before, while organising my talking points, I tweeted about the positive irony of going out to give inspirational talks, but leaving with perhaps more inspiration than I had been able to give. When I spoke to this group, I kept this thought in mind, considering each person present at the gathering as someone I could learn something from. I was familiar with situations where there is an abundance of potential, yet very few opportunities to match, and it has become one of my guidelines to interacting with young people, both at individual and group levels.

I came. I talked. I answered questions. Then, I sat in one corner and quietly watched the next activity which included a fun question and answer session. The questions somehow morphed into requests and by the time I was set to leave, I had seen much dancing, singing and animal sound imitations to use up my daily ration of laughter. Yet, two cases stayed with me and months later, have prompted me to write this blog.

Describe yourself. This was the request for two of the girls, when their turn came to answer questions from their peers. They stood in the middle of the room, fumbling with their clothes, thinking hard and going through the various stages of shyness that I knew too well . I waited, eager to hear their responses, while silently hoping they would be well-rounded -don’t ask by what standards. The responses came and left me with more questions than I was probably allowed to ask.

Fat. Big Head. Big nose. Black. Slim. Tall. These were the adjectives I still remember from the girls. On my way home, a few questions lingered in my mind. Why did they concentrate solely on their physical features? Is self-description limited to the parts of us that are already very visible? How has this become the default route, especially for young girls? How did we get here, and more importantly, how do we move away from this place, to teach and encourage girls to see, appreciate and be eager and confident to represent their wholeness?

As someone who struggled with body image issues while growing up, I understand how it can become the yardstick by which we measure our worth, regardless of all the amazing things we are, do, embody and represent.

For many years, my skinny frame was the butt of endless jokes and taunting from my schoolmates, most of whom saw it as the only way to get back at me for coming out top of my year each term. I had a range of nicknames to choose from, each one chipping at the bones that had become too visible, too threatening, too abnormal for the people around me. Add to that my work in HIV/AIDS sensitisation, and you’d get a full mix of the ugliest form of bullying and body-shaming I could ever receive, especially at that young age. I was only eleven.

When I finally grew strong and confident enough to reclaim my body as the vessel that carried my soul, and recognised the importance of keeping it clean and filled with positive vibes, attitudes towards me gradually changed. What was regarded as an ugly skeletal frame suddenly became a supermodel to-die-for body goal, and had me dealing with the sometimes annoying requests for samples of my diet. The most frequent question upon meeting someone for the first time has been ‘are you a model’, followed by the incredulous ‘why not’. I understood the significance of my increasing self-love and the confidence in the body I had decided to rediscover and appreciate, and how it helped to shape people’s attitude towards me.

My open identity as a feminist means I now have to deal with less remarks about my body from people who know me and are familiar with the work that I do. More significantly, it has guided me to an understanding of what truly matters in my life. I grew increasingly aware of the difference in my choices regarding beauty and fashion, disregarding trends and choosing comfort in line with my own tastes. This is not as easy as it sounds, what with the ridiculous beauty standards set by society and promoted by the media, but it has been a journey worth taking.

For many women -especially young- however, this is not a given. The pressure to fit it and conform to these standards weighs heavy and therefore, influences the greater part of what we do and how we view ourselves. We are quick to set aside our great potential and even minimise our achievements simply because we do not meet these standards. It doesn’t matter how much we have accomplished as long as we are not moving around in a slim-thick, light-skinned frame that has probably had little bearing on those achievements. Our whole existence is reduced to how we look, what we wear and how appealing we appear to society.

In that room, I saw a group of young ladies with a strong passion for positive change in their communities. Some of them had already set out on this journey, mentoring and tutoring younger ones, while contributing to the design of new action plans for their organisation. I recognised the immense leadership potential and the ability that these young ladies had to lead change and transform their lives and those of others who are lucky to benefit from their acts of service.

However, in their responses, I saw an affirmation of the expectation from women to be seen and not heard. I saw a measure of their value and worth attached to their appearances, not their goals, dreams, aspirations and accomplishments. I recognised the younger me in them and knew they were not to blame for the socialisation they have undergone, which limited their self perception to the trivial and the superficial. And I wished society had dealt them -us all- a fairer card.

As with most of my experiences, I left with a mind full of thoughts on how to reverse this trend and teach girls that we are worth more than our bodies and the clothes we wear. We have power to transform the world and ensure that our daughters do not have to go through the same troubles. We are capable of taking ownership of our bodies and defining what beauty means to each of us.

We are responsible for rewriting the narrative about who we are and what we represent in this world that has chosen to relegate us to the backseat. We should no longer be afraid to break through the barriers set for us and pop out of the boxes we have been placed in, to claim our true destiny and work for what we want. It is certainly easier said than done, but it is not impossible.

While wishing these girls grow up to discover their true worth and essence like I had the chance to do, I hope we can be and create enough role models, who are willing to share their experiences and highlight what truly matters. I hope we can make the shift to celebrating women for their achievements and not chiding them for not measuring up to our visual expectations.

And to the women, the change begins with us. You are only as beautiful as you think and see yourself to be. Your beauty is yours to define and it certainly doesn’t have to be linked to your physical appearance. Reclaim your identity and redefine your stories, such that your idea of who you are reigns supreme over any external definitions. This is another manifestation of your power. Do not give it up.