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For Little Girls Turned Women

I rise
In answer to the cries
Of the innocent, the fragile
Too young to understand
Yet never too young to know pain
Borne from the cuts of society
Masked in honour and servitude to God
Marked with the demands of a culture
That stands by and listens to these cries
Then beats the drums to celebrate this honour

I rise
For the little girl turned woman
Her only crime was being born female
Into a world where choice is masculine
Dignity is male
And pleasure is for her to give, never to receive
Her gift from God, stolen
Made a woman yet less of a woman
For how is she complete with a piece of her missing
While she watches the cycle grow
From her to her daughter, to her daughter
Missing pieces, vacuums of emotional trauma
Wherein dwell the loud echoes of pain indescribable

I rise
For an end to the cries
Healing for the cuts, the hearts, the minds
For the screams at childbirth, the passage too narrow
An end to the nightmares, the feeling of guilt
For the missing pieces, from woman to woman
I rise for the 70% and counting…
Against the culture that breeds it
The people who fight for it, defend it
For the little girl who needed one voice

I give my voice to her
I rise

#EndFGM #EndChildMarriage

11/11/2015

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Lost and Found

The wind kisses my tender skin
It’s my 7th autumn, the summer’s gone
Sun’s rays slowly nesting in the skies
Temperatures caress the ground; change.

I’ve seen winter storms and spring blossoms
Braved the chills in my copper coat
Found warmth in the hands of man, soft
Passed from one to the next, my journey.

I’ve got two faces
Equal value, minted for the same worth
Taking me through pockets and purses
Palm to palm, fingers touching briefly.

Brief. Like the life I’ve spent at each stop
Completing huge sums, part of a whole
No you without me; not much of me without you
Completing huge sums, part of a whole.

Then I fell.
My copper coat met the ground
Our embrace forced by passing feet
Soles of leather; soles of rubber
Oblivious to this new dance they create.

Is this love? Is this nature? Is this the end?
Part of a whole, now all alone. This turn
I see more soles; I see one good soul
He picks me up. One last chance?

The wind kisses my tender skin
It’s my 7th autumn, the summer’s gone
I’ve found a new home in his hands, her words
My life has come full circle.

 

Linguere
18/10/2016

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.

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***

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

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.

Conclusion

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.