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Women’s health

Gambian circumcisers drop their knives

by Nfamara Jawneh
In the Gambia, female genital mutilation (FGM) used to be taboo. The silence was only broken in recent years, with people now discussing the harmful tradition. In December, some 60 circumcisers publicly abandoned the practice. They serve 351 communities from Gambia’s Central and Upper River Regions. [ By Nfamara Jawneh ]

On 5 December 2009, a non-governmental organisation called the Gambia Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children (GAMCOTRAP) organised a public event. During a “dropping the knife” celebration in the town of Basse, some five dozen ex-circumcisers took an oath. It read:
“We, the circumcisers of The Gambia representing our cluster villages in the Central and Upper River Regions of The Gambia, hereby present today at the Basse Stadium, solemnly declare to the world and in particular to The Gambia that we have stopped the practice of female genital mutilation in our communities; we have over the years received information through the training and advocacy works of GAMCOTRAP on women’s health and have been equipped with knowledge about the effects of FGM on the sexual and reproductive health rights of women and the rights of the child. Having been empowered with the right information, we hereby publicly declare that we shall never involve ourselves in the practice of FGM again; we take leadership and responsibility in protecting and promoting the best interest of the girl child.”

Thousands of people were gathered in the stadium to attend the ceremony. GAMCOTRAP’s executive director, Isatou Touray, addressed them, emphasising the role of the circumcisers – typically women who are also healers and birth attendents. She considers it a great achievement to have convinced them of the harm they were inflicting. These women are persons of authority within their communities and if they discontinue the practice, the communities they serve will do so too.

Isatou Touray and her organisation are active throughout the Gambia, campaining against FGM with the goal of eliminating the practice completely. Their struggle against FGM began in 1984, but it was not before 2007 that the first group of circumciser communities abandoned the practice and publicly stated so.

The FGM tradition has deep historical roots, yet it is not sanctioned by religion, even though many think so. In the Gambia, a predominantly Muslim country, many are even ready to die if that would be what their religion said. Therefore, it is very important to point out that neither the Qu’ran nor the holy scriptures of any other major religion demand that women be circumcised. Indeed, the practice is unknown in Muslim countries like Indonesia or Bangladesh.

“Through information, education and communication, being a victim and coming from a cultural background that practices it, I came to realise the reasons behind FGM”, Isatou Touray says. “I knew there were socio-economic, cultural and religious factors.” GAMCOTRAP’s strategy is to tackle them all. FGM-related issues of belief, tradition, health, human rights and economics are discussed in a holistic approach with circumcisers, who are duty bearers within their communities. At the same time, it is also necessary to reach out to the broader communities in the language the people understand. Songs, pictures, stories and drama serve to enlighten people about issues such as health risks. Relevant topics include:
– Why do some women die at childbirth?
– What are typical complications of childbirth?
– How do they relate to FGM?

For GAMCOTRAP, former circumcisers are important partners. They are best suited to reach out to other healers and birth attendents who still adhere to tradition. One challenge, however, is that circumcisers earn money from the practice. Thus, dropping the knife also means foresaking income. GAMCOTRAP strives to compensate by teaching entrepreneurship skills, providing alternative employment opportunities and involving ex-circumcisers in community work.

National politics

Government representatives appreciate the work GAMCOTRAP is doing. “FGM is inimical to the health of the girl child”, Mariama Jaw, a female councilor, said at the circumcisers public oath in Basse. She was speaking on behalf of the regional governor and explicitly thanked GAMCOTRAP for “breaking the silence”.

The public declaration was funded by UNFPA, the Inter-Africa Committee on Traditional Practices (IAC) and Yolocamba Solidaridad. UNFPA’s assistant country representative, Ruebe Mboge, represented the UN agencies at the celebration. He reaffirmed his organisation’s commitment to supporting initiatives to eliminate FGM in the Gambia.

Bekai Camara, the member of Parliament for Wuli East, says there will soon be a law prohibiting FGM and that anyone practising it thereafter will be prosecuted. Indeed, the country’s lawmakers were systematically briefed on FGM in the fall. The result was a declaration that, being a violation of women’s rights, FGM must stop. Lawmakers are discussing to ban FGM by 2011. Campaigners are optimistic about Parliament passing such a law unanimously.

The Gambia has ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women as well as the African Protocol on the Rights of Women. Passing laws accordingly is the right response to these international agreements.

Meanwhile, GAMCOTRAP is disappointed in the country’s most influential religious body. So far the Gambia Supreme Islamic Council has not issued any public statement on FGM. The NGO considers the Council responsible for a lot of misinformation. “Why don’t they come out with an honest position to the public? When people look up to you and you are to face a responsibility, you should face it, even though it may be difficult,” GAMCOTRAP’s leader Isatou Touray says. She does not feel let down by all religious leaders, however, “I am very happy that people like Imam Baba Leigh, Oustass Sanowo, Saikou Fayinke of Basse and a few scholars came out to clarify the issue for women.”

Other NGOs are also engaged in the fight against FGM. BAFROW (the Foundation for Research on Women’s Health, Productivity & Development) and APGWA (the Association for the Promotion of Gambian Women and Children) are very active. Recently TOSTAN, another NGO, joined the campaign. Uniting forces should help the NGOs eventually overcome another obstacle. They are struggling for more coverage from the Gambia’s National Television and National Radio, stations with boadcasting monopolies in the country.