Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) or Female Genital Cutting?
As we head towards the end of May, many households in the Greater Banjul Area are apprehensive about the planned exodus back to the Fonis and Casamance of thousands of Jola-speaking women who works as domestic maids in the area. They will be away for between two to four weeks taking part in dozens of initiation rites and many families are forced to face the challenges finding temporary replacement. The folkloric ceremonies have an air of weeks of festivals of singing, hand-clapping, dancing, drinking and merrymaking that go on throughout the days and nights of the season. Some Jola communities will abandon their Diaspora villages and communities to return home for the events that take place on the average of every three years. This year’s season of initiation rites approaches just after the conclusion of a three-day international conference on harmful traditional practices, which was held at the Sheraton Hotel in Brufut on Tuesday 5th of May and came into conclusion three days later on the 8th May.
The three-day workshop was organized by WASSU-Gambia Kaafo and University Autonomous of Barcelona in Spain. According to the organizers the conference would accord participants the opportunity to learn, review and update the achievements registered in The Gambia and draw useful lessons and good practices from countries and organizations that have successfully implemented projects concerning FGM in Africa and Europe, through the promotion of a holistic approach. Participants were drawn from the usual crowd of international organizations, non-governmental organizations, government and UN agencies. It also drew many participants from around Africa and the rest of the world - doctors, nurses, religious leaders and traditional practitioners, and Civil Society Organizations. Participants covered areas such as the role of international organizations in the prevention of harmful tradition practices and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as well as the role of government in eradicating harmful traditional practices.
Declaring the conference open, Vice President Aja Isatou Njie-Saidy, who is also responsible for Women’s Affairs, thanked the sponsors of the forum who, according to her, are very much instrumental in the fight against all forms of harmful traditional and cultural practices (including FGM) against women and girls.
According to VP Njie-Saidy, it is The Gambia’s intention to re-dress this issue, through sensitization and other ways of addressing this global problem and concern. She said that they have now realized that it is indeed a deep-rooted traditional practice that has been passed on from one generation to another, adding that The Gambia is one of the twenty-eight countries in Africa where the practice still exists.
Dr Njie-Saidy made reference to the UNICEF cluster survey or MICS 2007, which shows a prevalence of almost 78%. This figure, she noted, indicates that a lot more work needs to be done in the area of eradication of FGM. "We believe that a legislation to ban FGM may be difficult to implement, but instead public media education, backed by facts and figures based on empirical data may create an understanding and enabling environment through health related studies, to confirm its health implications, which have been documented over the period,” she said.
It is indeed surprising to hear the former head of the Women’s Bureaus who herself is a victim of the process, hailing from a community who are dedicated to the practice, say that they only recently came to realize that it is a “deep-rooted traditional practice.” While at the head of the bureau and with funds from many external donors including the World Bank with its ten-year Women In Development (WID) Project, Mrs. Njie-Saidy was a fire-eating anti-FGM activist. She continued so even when she was brought into the Jammeh regime until about ten years ago in 1999 when President Jammeh ordered a ban on the debate.
President Jammeh had been tolerant of the anti-FGM lobby as long as it brought in project funds into the country. But when the World Bank phased out the WID project instead of extending it , Jammeh decided there was no longer any point tolerating the “Western imperialist campaign.” As a result there has been a ten-year de facto ban on the campaign against FGM in The Gambia. Government delegations attending international gatherings on gender issues and the practice of FGM have always abided by the correct political rhetoric on the issue but they have always insisted that taking legislative measures against the practice will be ineffectual. Over the last couple of years however, government seems to have slightly relaxed its stifling of the talk on FGM but there has been little debate on the issue since the public denunciation of former World Health Regional Director, Dr. Samba, by fanatical State House imam Fatty about seven years ago. The talk on the practice has always been a monologue, or at best a sermon to the choir instead of the congregation. It is always the gatherings of the likeminded held in cozy conference halls. Opinions held by the majority of Gambians, who still practice it, never manage to come through in such forums. Many Gambians, even the women victims themselves, are indifferent to the issue of FGM. The struggle against FGM is mainly led by a small group of women elite who have not been able to popularize it and turn it into a mass movement. It is mainly project funded and seen from a Euro-centrist view point. Many Gambians will rather have the practice termed female genital cutting than mutilation. The Euro-centrist view point categorizes FGM in the realm of gender and sexual oppression devised by patriarchal societies. But some of the FGM cultural practices involve not actually cutting up, but sewing up the female genital organ. Even those who cut up do it differently depending on customs and traditions.
The problem with the Gambian anti-FGM is that they are without a strategy that differentiates the various types of FGM and devises ways of tackling them accordingly. The campaign has a single-issue methodology which fails to properly link FGM to the wider social setting and other problems faced by women. It has not staggered its campaign plans into achievable goals. Given the importance of health risks involved in the practice of FGM, and as the fight is still on, activists should make it a duty of providing healthier cutting alternatives that comply with the best possible sanitary practices until the practice is completely stopped.