By Patricia Vermeulen*
The president of Gambia, Yahya Jammeh, said on Monday 23 November that Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) would be outlawed. Jammeh was inspired by the global campaign of The Guardian. He said the ban would come into effect immediately, though it is not clear when the government would draft legislation to enforce it. Sure is that the law needs to be passed as soon as possible in order to show the government’s commitment to this announcement.
FGM comprises all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. The practice is mostly carried out by traditional circumcisers, who often play other central roles in communities, such as attending childbirths. However, more than 18% of all FGM is performed by health care providers, and the trend towards medicalization is increasing.
FGM is recognized internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women. But it reflects deep-rooted traditions. The procedures are mostly carried out on young girls sometime between infancy and age 15, and occasionally on adult women. In Africa, more than three million girls have been estimated to be at risk for FGM annually. More than 125 million girls and women alive today have been cut in 29 countries in Africa. The practice is most common in the western, eastern, and north-eastern regions of Africa, in some countries in Asia and the Middle East, and among migrants from these areas.
The practice also violates a person’s rights to health, security and physical integrity, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to life when the procedure results in death.
There are no health benefits
FGM has no health benefits, and it harms girls and women in many ways. It involves removing and damaging healthy and normal female genital tissue, and interferes with the natural functions of girls’ and women’s bodies. Immediate complications can include severe pain, shock, bleeding, bacterial infection, urine retention, open sores in the genital region and injury to nearby genital tissue.
Long-term consequences can include recurrent bladder and urinary tract infections, cysts, infertility, an increased risk of childbirth complications and newborn deaths and the need for later surgeries. For example, the FGM procedure that seals or narrows a vaginal opening needs to be cut open later to allow for sexual intercourse and childbirth. Sometimes it is stitched again several times, including after childbirth, hence the woman goes through repeated opening and closing procedures, further increasing and repeated both immediate and long-term risks.
Cultural, religious and social causes
The causes of female genital mutilation include a mix of cultural, religious and social factors within families and communities. Where FGM is a social convention, the social pressure to conform to what others do and have been doing is a strong motivation to perpetuate the practice. FGM is also considered a necessary part of raising a girl properly, and a way to prepare her for adulthood and marriage. Furthermore FGM is often motivated by beliefs about what is considered proper sexual behavior, linking procedures to premarital virginity and marital fidelity. FGM is in many communities believed to reduce a woman’s libido and therefore believed to help her resist “illicit” sexual acts. When a vaginal opening is covered or narrowed, the fear of the pain of opening it, and the fear that this will be found out, is expected to further discourage “illicit” sexual intercourse among women with this type of FGM.
FGM is associated with cultural ideals of femininity and modesty, which include the notion that girls are “clean” and “beautiful” after removal of body parts that are considered “male” or “unclean”. Though no religious scripts prescribe the practice, practitioners often believe the practice has religious support. Religious leaders take varying positions with regards to FGM: Some promote it, some consider it irrelevant to religion, and others contribute to its elimination. Local structures of power and authority, such as community leaders, religious leaders, circumcisers, and even some medical personnel can contribute to upholding the practice. In most societies, FGM is considered a cultural tradition, which is often used as an argument for its continuation. In some societies, recent adoption of the practice is linked to copying the traditions of neighboring groups. Sometimes it has started as part of a wider religious or traditional revival movement. In other societies, FGM is practiced by new groups when they move into areas where the local population practice FGM.
Campaign by The Guardian
The British newspaper The Guardian has been building a global media network to campaign across Africa through journalism, popular soap, radio, social media and animation to end FGM. The Guardian‘s global media campaign against FGM aims to put all the tools of the modern day communication to work to end FGM – as quickly as possible. It’s estimated that 6,000 girls are still being mutilated daily by FGM. Over this year The Guardian‘s ‘End FGM Global Media Campaign’ aims to keep making new partnerships across Africa with prominent media groups and make ending FGM a priority for us all. Whether The Guardian works through journalism, soap opera, animation or advertising, the time has come to end FGM. The international reputation of The Guardian will help to open the doors of those that can change minds and educate.
Gambia has announced that it bans FGM after The Guardian launched its global campaign to end the practice. The president, Yahya Jammeh, said that the controversial surgical intervention would be outlawed. He said the ban would come into effect immediately, though it was not clear when the government would draft legislation to enforce it. In Gambia there is an estimated 76% of females who have been the a victim of FGM including 56% of girls under 14. This is a relatively high percentage and gives an indication of the turnaround the country has had on this practice. A 2015 report by ‘28 Too Many’ even stated that: “FGM will be not be stopped in Gambia by the end of 2015” – what shows how huge this news is. Contradictory to perceptions of support for FGM, in Gambia backing for the continuation of the practice is strongest among the country’s richest women and even varies dramatically in different ethnic communities.
Jaha Dukureh, an anti-FGM activist whose campaign to end the practice in the country has been supported by the Guardian, spent the past week meeting cabinet ministers in Gambia and sent them articles from the newspaper to inform them about the issue. “I’m really amazed that the president did this. I didn’t expect this in a million years. I’m just really proud of my country and I’m really, really happy,” she told the Guardian. “I think the president cared about the issue, it was just something that was never brought to his attention.” Jammeh’s announcement came during his visit at his home village on Kanilai as part of a nationwide tour. The announcement was unexpected for both campaigners and public. “The amazing thing is that it’s election season. This could cost the president the election. He put women and girls first, this could negatively affect him, but this shows he cares more about women than losing people’s votes,” says Jaha Dukureh.
Mary Wandia, the FGM programme manager at women’s rights campaign group Equality Now said: “The ban is an essential first step towards ending FGM and we commend President Jammeh on finally announcing it. A law must now be enacted and properly implemented to ensure that every girl at risk is properly protected. The government needs to show strong commitment and prioritize this issue in a country where three quarters of women have been affected and reductions in prevalence have been slow to materialize.” Though support for FGM is widespread in Gambia, reports have shown that public support for the practice has dropped in recent decades among women across all age groups. Support for the continuation of the practice is strongest among the country’s richest women and varies dramatically in different ethnic communities.
Also the NGO Amref Flying Doctors is working towards ending FGM. Their ARP model, developed through a project in Magadi and Kajiado (partly funded by the Dutch Postcode Lottery), consists of awareness activities and training to engage key cultural elders, mothers, girls, morans (young men) and the wider community. The community identifies the health risks associated with the cut such as severe fatal bleeding, extensive damage of the reproductive health system and obstetric fistula among others and takes ownership of developing an alternative rite of passage for the girls to enter womanhood. FGM, a long-held cultural practice among the Maasai community, has been outlawed in Kenya since 2001 under the Children’s Act and Chapter 586 of the Laws of Kenya, although it is still practiced in secret. To date, over 8,000 girls have denounced the practice and undergone the cultural community-led alternative to female circumcision.
*Patricia Vermeulen is the CEO of Amref Flying Doctors in the Netherlands.