Tension mounts as Gambian lawmakers debate repealing landmark FGM ban

Gambia’s parliament debated Monday whether to overturn a landmark law that banned female genital mutilation (FGM) in the country, as some religious groups in the largely Muslim nation pushed for the law to be repealed.

There were protests outside the building as lawmakers discussed the private member’s bill that sought to decriminalize the practice in the small West African country. The motion was eventually referred to a parliamentary committee for further review, deputy speaker of the parliament Seedy SK Njie said.

Njie said parliament “will make a final decision” on the bill after consulting with the committee but did not provide a timeline as demonstrators for and against the bill gathered outside the parliament Monday.

He, however, declared his own support for the FGM ban, saying: “The law is here to stay and will not be repealed.”

“We are greatly committed to the protection of Gambian women and girls from all forms of violence,” Njie added.

FGM was outlawed in Gambia in 2015 under former president Yahya Jammeh who oversaw the imposition of fines and prison sentences of up to three years for individuals who engaged in the practice. The anti-FGM law also punished perpetrators with life imprisonment in instances where the practice led to death.

Pro-Islamic groups and lawmakers have pushed for the anti-FGM law to be repealed, as Gambia’s top Islamic body, the Supreme Islamic Council (GSIC) described female circumcision as “one of the virtues of Islam.”

Other prominent Gambians, such as opposition leader and former interior minister Mai Ahmad Fatty also campaigned for the anti-FGM legislation to be removed.

On Sunday, Fatty posted a photo of himself holding a placard that read: “There is no FGM in Gambia. We circumcise, not mutilate,” adding that the Gambian constitution “protects [the] right to practice religious belief and to manifest it.”

Supporters of the bill demonstrate as parliament debates it in the Gambian capital on Monday. - Malick Njie/Reuters
Supporters of the bill demonstrate as parliament debates it in the Gambian capital on Monday. - Malick Njie/Reuters

According to local media, three Gambian women were convicted last year of performing the practice on eight female minors and were compelled to pay fines of around 15,000 Gambian Dalasi ($220) each or face a one-year jail sentence. The fines were reported to have been paid by an Islamic cleric.

In 2016, two women were charged before a Banjul Magistrates’ Court in the country’s capital after a five-month-old infant girl died from genital mutilation in the Sankandi area of Gambia’s Kiang West district.

A ‘backward move’

Amnesty International described efforts to repeal the FGM ban in Gambia as a “backward move” for the protection of human rights in the country.

“This bill would set a dangerous precedent for women’s rights and tarnish Gambia’s human rights record. We urge parliament to vote against it,” said Michèle Eken, a senior researcher at the agency’s West and Central Africa office.

Eken added: “It is very disappointing that after the long fight Gambian activists put up to advance women’s rights, parliament is preparing to consider this backward move.”

Gambia’s National Human Rights Commission also said it was “gravely concerned” about moves by parliament to overturn the anti-FGM law, which it added was “an attempt to roll back many years of advocacy, awareness raising and struggle by women’s rights organizations and defenders which led to the eventual legal prohibition of FGM in the country.”

An association of female lawyers in the country warned that “cultural practices should never take precedence over core principles of human rights.”

Around 73% of Gambian women aged between 15 and 49 years have experienced FGM, with 65% of them being “subjected to it before the age of five years,” according to the United Nations.

Globally, more than 200 million women and girls have undergone FGM which is common in Africa and Asia, UNICEF said.

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