Gambia’s FGM Law Under Threat: What’s at Stake?

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In December 2015, Gambia made a monumental decision to outlaw female genital mutilation (FGM), a practice that has long been embedded in the cultural fabric of many African societies. This law was a huge victory for human rights activists who had tirelessly campaigned against the practice. Recent developments indicate that this law is now under threat, raising concerns about the future of women’s rights in the country.


In July 2024, Gambian lawmakers endorsed recommendations to uphold the country’s ban on female genital mutilation (FGM), ahead of a vote later this month on whether to decriminalize the practice. Following a contentious debate, the joint health and gender committee’s report was adopted by the full house, with 35 lawmakers voting in favor, 17 against, and two abstentions.


A final vote on the bill to decriminalize FGM is scheduled for July 24. If passed, Gambia would be the first country to reverse a ban on FGM. During its second reading in March, only five out of 53 lawmakers opposed the bill, with one abstaining.


The joint committee conducted a national public consultation with religious and traditional leaders, doctors, victims, civil society groups, and circumcisers. Their conclusions, presented on Monday, described all forms of FGM as “a traumatic form of torture” and “discrimination against women.”


“Repealing the law would be a significant setback for Gambia,” stated Amadou Camara, the lawmaker who presented the report.


Understanding FGM and Its Impact

FGM involves the partial or total removal of external female genitalia for non-medical reasons. The practice is recognized internationally as a violation of human rights, particularly affecting girls and women. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone FGM, with the practice most prevalent in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.


The immediate health risks of FGM include severe pain, bleeding, infections, and in extreme cases, death. Long-term consequences can be even more devastating, encompassing chronic pain, childbirth complications, reduced sexual pleasure, and psychological trauma. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) highlights that FGM significantly increases the risk of maternal and infant mortality.


FGM is often perceived as a rite of passage, a prerequisite for marriage, and a means of preserving family honor. In many communities, the practice is deeply rooted in gender inequality, with societal pressures compelling families to conform. The 2015 Demographic and Health Survey in Gambia revealed that 75% of women aged 15-49 had undergone FGM, underscoring the practice’s deep entrenchment.


Current Threats to the FGM Law in Gambia

Despite these gains, Gambia’s FGM law is now under threat. Deep-seated cultural beliefs and traditions continue to pose significant challenges. Some communities view the FGM ban as an imposition of Western values, fostering resistance and clandestine practices.


What’s at Stake? Revoking the ban would represent a huge setback in the fight for gender equality and women’s rights. It would undermine decades of progress made by activists and organizations working to empower women and eradicate harmful practices. This could lead to a resurgence in FGM practices, putting millions of girls and women at risk of severe health complications. In Gambia, the health infrastructure is already strained, and an increase in FGM cases could overwhelm the system, exacerbating maternal and infant mortality rates.

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