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.