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Gambia to Vote on Repealing Ban on Female Genital Cutting

WorldAfricaGambia to Vote on Repealing Ban on Female Genital Cutting

Gambian lawmakers are preparing to decide whether to revoke a ban on female genital cutting by removing legal protections for millions of girls, raising fears that other countries could follow suit.

Members of Gambia’s national assembly plan to vote on whether to overturn the ban on Monday after the second reading of the bill. Human rights experts, lawyers and women’s and girls’ rights campaigners say it threatens to undo decades of work to end female genital cutting, a centuries-old ritual tied up in ideas of sexual purity, obedience and control.

If Gambia repeals the ban, it will become the first nation globally to roll back protections against cutting, and campaigners fear it will open the doors for other countries to take similar action.

“They are using girls’ bodies as a political battlefield,” said Fatou Baldeh, one of the leading opponents of genital cutting in the small West African nation. She said she fears that if the men leading the charge — whom she described as extremists — succeeded, they would next try to roll back other laws, like one banning child marriage.

If the bill passes Monday, government committees will be able to propose amendments before it comes back to Parliament for a final reading. Analysts say if the bill is not killed at this stage, its proponents will gain momentum and it will probably pass into law.

Gambia banned cutting in 2015 but did not enforce the ban until last year, when three practitioners were given hefty fines. An influential imam in the Muslim-majority country took up their cause and has been leading calls to repeal the ban, claiming that cutting — which in Gambia usually involves removing the clitoris and labia minora of girls between ages 10 and 15 — is a religious obligation and important culturally.

Cutting takes different forms and is most common in Africa, though it is also widespread in parts of Asia and the Middle East. Internationally recognized as a gross violation of human rights, it frequently leads to serious health issues, like infections, hemorrhages and severe pain, and it is a leading cause of death in the countries where it is practiced.

Worldwide, genital cutting is increasing despite campaigns to stop it — mainly because of population growth in the countries where it is common. More than 230 million women and girls have undergone it, according to UNICEF — an increase of 30 million people since the last time the agency made an estimate, in 2016.

In Gambia, only five of the 58 lawmakers expected to vote on the bill are women, meaning men will be spearheading a discussion on a practice that is forced on young girls.

“They have no say,” said Emmanuel Joof, head of Gambia’s National Human Rights Commission.

The proposal to repeal the ban “poses serious, life-threatening consequences for the health and well being of Gambia’s women and girls,” said Geeta Rao Gupta, the U.S. ambassador at large for global women’s issues.

From 1994 until 2016, Gambia was led by one of the region’s most notorious dictators, Yahya Jammeh, who, a truth commission found in 2021, had people tortured and killed by a hit squad, raped women and threw many people in jail for no reason. He called those fighting to end female genital mutilation, often known by its acronym, F.G.M., “enemies of Islam.

So it came as a shock to many Gambian opponents of cutting when, in 2015, Mr. Jammeh banned the practice — something many observers attributed to the influence of his Moroccan wife.

The new law was hailed as a watershed moment in Gambia, where three-quarters of women and girls are cut. But the law was not enforced, and this emboldened pro-cutting imams who are “hellbent on having a theocratic state” to try to repeal it, according to Mr. Joof.

Clerics in the Muslim world disagree on whether cutting is Islamic, but it is not in the Quran. The most vocal of the Gambian imams, Abdoulie Fatty, has argued that “circumcision makes you cleaner” and said the husbands of women who have not been cut suffer because they cannot meet their wives’ sexual appetites. Many Gambians accused Mr. Fatty of being a hypocrite, pointing out that when Mr. Jammeh banned cutting, Mr. Fatty was the presidential imam but apparently said nothing.

At the bill’s first reading two weeks ago, Mr. Fatty bused in a group of young women to chant pro-cutting slogans outside Parliament. Their faces veiled — which is unusual in Gambia — they sang and waved pink posters that read: “Female circumcision is our religious beliefs.”

Ms. Baldeh, the opponent of genital cutting, was 8 years old when she was pinned down and cut. But when she first heard the term “female genital mutilation,” when she was studying for a master’s degree in sexual and reproductive health, she didn’t recognize it as something she had been through, because she saw it as part of her culture, not something violent that harmed women. Her own grandmother, a traditional birth attendant, was involved in cutting.

After reading and speaking to other women, though, Ms. Baldeh realized what she had been subjected to and started speaking out against cutting — first by trying to change her own family members’ minds. She became one of the most prominent voices speaking out against cutting in Gambia.

Cutting could be ended within a generation, if there was the will to do it, Ms. Baldeh said.

“If you don’t cut a girl, she’s not going to cut her future daughters,” she said.

On March 4, Ms. Baldeh was at the White House with Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Jill Biden, the first lady, receiving an International Women of Courage award for her work against cutting. But that same day Gambian lawmakers were listening to the first reading of the bill to overturn the cutting ban — one that would unravel the legal gains Ms. Baldeh and other opponents of cutting had made.

She and other observers said they expected Monday’s vote to be extremely close — not because most lawmakers believe in cutting but because they are afraid of losing their parliamentary seats, and so would vote the legislation through.

“The saddest part is the silence from the government,” she said.

This silence extends even to the ministry charged with protecting women and children, which is headed by Fatou Kinteh, who previously was the United Nations Population Fund’s coordinator in Gambia for gender-based violence and female genital mutilation. Reached by phone on Saturday, Ms. Kinteh refused to comment on a possible overturn of the cutting ban, saying she would call back later. She never did.

Ms. Baldeh said the imams’ recent rhetoric in support of cutting has spread to many Gambian men, who have unleashed a torrent of online abuse on women who speak out against the practice, undermining what had been a flourishing movement to increase women’s and girls’ rights in Gambia. But she said the online abuse would not derail their efforts.

“If this law gets repealed, we know they’re coming for more,” Ms. Baldeh said. “So we will fight it to the end.”

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