Gambia Votes to Overturn Landmark Ban on Female Genital Cutting

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

Of the 47 members of the Gambia National Assembly present on Monday, 42 voted in favor of a bill to overturn the ban, sending the decision to committees before a final vote. Human rights experts, lawyers and women’s and girls’ rights campaigners say that overturning the ban will undo decades of work to end female genital cutting, a centuries-old ritual tied up in ideas of sexual purity, obedience and control.

If it passes the final stages, the small West African nation of Gambia will become the first nation globally to roll back protections against cutting.

Government committees will be able to propose amendments before it comes back to Parliament for a final reading in about three months — but analysts say that it has now passed the key stage: Its proponents will gain momentum and it will probably become 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 the 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 the ages of 10 and 15 — is a religious obligation and important culturally.

Anti-cutting campaigners gathered outside Parliament in Banjul, Gambia’s capital, on Monday morning, but police set up barricades and prevented many from getting inside — while allowing in the religious leaders who advocate cutting and their supporters, according to Fatou Baldeh, one of Gambia’s leading opponents of genital cutting.

“It was very sad to witness the whole debate, and men trying to justify why this would continue,” Ms. Baldeh said after the vote. She said she feared 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.

Inside Parliament, lawmakers — all of them men — traded arguments.

“If people are being arrested for practicing F.G.M., then that means they are being deprived of their right to practice religion,” one member of parliament, Lamin Ceesay, said, according to Parliament Watch, a project that promotes parliamentary transparency and accountability.

“Let’s protect our women,” another, Gibbi Mballow, said. “I am a father, and I can’t support such a bill.” He added, “Religion says we should not harm women.”

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.

Four lawmakers voted against the bill and one abstained on Monday. Only five of Gambia’s 58 lawmakers are women, meaning men are 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.

Repealing the ban will pose “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 has 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 were 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 that most Gambian lawmakers did not necessarily believe in cutting but were in favor of the bill because they were afraid of losing their parliamentary seats.

“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 had 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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