Gambian lawmakers to vote on bill to repeal FGM ban

Women shop at a street market in Banjul, Gambia, Dec. 3, 2021. [VOA]

A Monday vote could make Gambia the first country to repeal its ban on female genital cutting. Also referred to as female genital mutilation or FGM, the procedure includes the partial or full removal of external genitalia. The practice has been on the rise worldwide in recent years despite moves to outlaw it.

According to a report from the United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF, earlier this month, around 30 million women globally have undergone the procedure in the past eight years. It largely takes place in Africa and some parts of Asia and the Middle East. The procedure often occurs between infancy and adolescence to control women’s sexuality.

The World Health Organization says the procedure has no benefits. It can lead to serious bleeding and death, and long-term effects can include urinary tract infections, menstrual problems, pain, decreased sexual satisfaction, and childbirth complications as well as depression, low self-esteem, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Jaha Dukureh, the founder of Safe Hands for Girls, a local group in Gambia that aims to end the practice, told The Associated Press she worried repealing the 2015 ban on FGM could lead the way for more backsliding on women’s rights. Dukureh says she underwent the procedure herself and watched her sister bleed to death.

"If they succeed with this repeal, we know that they might come after the child marriage law and even the domestic violence law. This is not about religion but the cycle of controlling women and their bodies," she said.

According to U.N. data, the prevalence of FGM in Gambia has fallen steeply since the ban. Gambia's former leader, Yahya Jammeh, banned the practice in 2015 with no public explanation, imposing steep fines and jail sentences, surprising activists.

However, the new repeal bill is backed by religious conservatives, a powerful majority in the small Muslim nation. The bill’s text says, "It seeks to uphold religious purity and safeguard cultural norms and values."

Lawmaker Almameh Gibba, who presented the repeal bill, argued the ban violates citizens' rights to practice their culture and religion.

When the first people were convicted under the law last August for performing FGM on eight infant girls, the Gambia Supreme Islamic Council responded by saying female circumcision was one of the virtues of Islam.

Dukureh said she believes the bill will be voted down, but that activists and grassroots organizations hoping to stop FGM — are still not receiving enough support.

Separately Monday, male and female activists protested outside Gambia’s parliament against the repeal bill, while police in riot gear suppressed the crowd.