By Boto Sanneh
Editor’s note: ‘A field trip narrative, very insightful and revealing’
“Individuals have argued that the anti-FGM position in the Gambia is not thoroughly researched, not well-thought out and formulated and somehow, too Eurocentric and foreign donor-driven.”
Last month while on a brief visit home in Gambia, I had the opportunity to meet dozens of young girls attending a summer camp in Manduar village, near Brikama in the West Coast Region.
Jointly Organized by two groups of gender activists, The Girls Agenda and For My Sister organization, the 10 -day Camp was on Female Genital Mutilation, the lone but persistent issue of the Gambian gender-equality movement.
According to the organizers, “The camp aims at empowering young girls with skills that would help them as they are growing up into adults, as well as educating them and making them aware of issues that are affecting them, and how they could stand up to those issues such as FGM, early marriage, forced marriage and other harmful practices.”
Fallou Sowe from the Network against Gender-Based Violence, said “this was another camp to empower, educate and build skills, especially life skills of young girls so that they become parents tomorrow; who would be more protective of their children, who would also be able to protect themselves from violence and discrimination, especially those created based on gender.”
He said the NGBV, since its inception to date, “shall be and would continue to work with organizations such as the Girls Agenda to ensure that their young girls, children and mothers are protected from all forms of violence.”
Maria Saine from Safe Hands for Girls, said, “ in Safe Hands for Girls they believe that youths form a very important part of what they do, because they believe that youths at their age have a voice that could grow and have a big expression and impression in the communities that they came from. “
She went on adding that “They also believe in empowering youths so that they could be heard, and this could be done if youths believe in themselves”.
She said they could not sit at home and say they do not have a voice that could be heard, as such, they would not talk about what is affecting them.
If they believe that FGM is a harmful practice, then they needed to come out to their communities, be a survivor and tell them about their ordeals, she concluded .
Jainabou Baldeh, founding President of “For My Sister” organization, said that the organization is a US-based organization to help empower women in their various communities.
She said they partnered with the Girls Agenda for the summer camp to look at issues of FGM.
They are here to support any organization that engages in the communities and in empowering young women, she finally said.
“It was the first time I was coming across the names of the three or four gender activists groups They are like a new generation of gender activists, but I failed to see them coming with any new message different from the group of dedicated and committed gender-issue veterans organized in the GAMCOTRAP which has been courageously fighting FGM for decades now.”
During my two days attendance of the camp the most revealing and comprehensive input was that from program manager of Girls’ Agenda, Oumie Sisoho. These are some of the things he said:
She started by saying that every girl, including those present at the training course, has a fundamental human right to be respected; “not because they are a girl, but because they are human beings.”
At the Girls Agenda, they believe that they could reach at more girls as possible, because they know that FGM, child marriage, sexual offences, and other related issues affect the progress and growth of young girls, which are serious violations of their fundamental human rights.
This affects their bodily integrity and poses a serious threat to their reproductive integrity, as well as their security as persons.
Sissoho went on saying that many women who are victims of such practices have life-long health issues, with many others living life with psychological trauma.
This means, she argued, “that teenage pregnancy, sexual violence, FGM, forced or child marriage are issues that affect their progress as girls.”
Therefore, according to Ms Sisoho, “young women-led initiatives such as the Girls Agenda could not sit but act, because they believe that they owe young girls a responsibility to invest in them so that they could also progress.”
“We understand that because of the unequal power relationships boys/men and girls/women in our society, it is apparent that the problem of sexual offence, FGM, forcing a girl child to marry, can further undermined the realisation of their fullest potentials due to the consequences of such things.”
When a girl is affected with teenage pregnancy, in many instances, the parents would send her out to marry.
“We have to arrange a relationship for her because she is not ready to be educated”, she said they would say.
She added that the consequences attach to teenage pregnancy, affects the girl-child more than the boy-child.
“They also understand that FGM, other than the instant pain that they all feel when mutilated, they live with lifelong health issues relating to their reproductive system, psychological health and social consequences, she said.
It is important to raise awareness about these issues, brainstorm on the issues and how they affect their progress as young, she further stated.
Ms Sissoho added that if they all made a promise that they would not cut their female children, then FGM and other harmful traditional practices affecting girls and women in The Gambia would be a thing of the past.”
Well said, and well argued I thought to my self, but there is nothing different from GAMCOTRAP activists had been saying for decades. I have been watching and following this organization against harmful traditional practices for decades. I remember when Vice President Isatou Njie-Saidy was a leading member of the group and many thought she would take along with her into the vice presidency the issue of FGM. She had been at the Women’s Bureau, when the World Bank poured in lot of funds for the fight against FGM or female genital cutting, depending on how one looks at it. In fact when she was invited into cabinet in the late 1990s Njie-Saidy tried to smuggle the issue into the official political discourse until she was shouted down by dictator Yahya Jammeh who even went further issued a verbal ban on discussing the issue. I remember the then head of the Women’s Bureau, Dr Sigga Jagne who succeeded Njie-Saidy as head of the bureau Unlike Njie/Saidy Dr Jagne, did the only decent thing to do in the eyes of many observers and this endeared her in the hearts of many observers who still despise the vice president for being “unprincipled” and “opportunistic.”
At the time the call for legislation banning the practice of FGM provoked a backlash from reactionary conservative quarters in Islamic religious circles and traditionalist elements who argued that the practice was some of the ethnic groups of The Gambia, including President Jammeh’s own Jola ethnic group, practice it, as well as some members of the Fula, Mandinka and Sarahule ethnic traditions.
But it is not only these reactionary, conservative and fundamentalists who are critical of the country’s anti-FGM activists. Some secular and progressive elements have also being critical of them. Individuals have argued that the anti-FGM position in the Gambia is not thoroughly researched, not well-thought out and formulated and somehow, too Eurocentric and foreign donor-driven. According to these a great percentage of victims of the practice are not actually subjected to any cutting, but to “sewing-up” in which Victims have their genitals sewn with strings leaving only a tiny hole for the passing of urine. How many of the so-called FGM victims have part of their organs cut compared to those sewn up? And even the cuttings are done diversely depending on the traditions? It is known that the so called pharaoh-type method which cuts away most of the clitoris is not practised by any of the ethnic groups of The Gambia. Those who agitate against the practice need to know the percentages of the different practices in the different regions and cultures of the country to be able to properly target their propaganda accordingly. They must also be able to give reliable statics on the different practices, the associated health risks, etc, etc.
Activists must also be able to realize that the fight against the practice of FGM is not really one for gender equality since they are not simultaneously agitating against Male Genital Cutting. This obvious gender imbalance is a result of misconceptions of the Western perspective rooted in its study of the history of non-Western cultures and practices. Many Middle Eastern historical experiences saw the practice of castrating slaves and servants into eunuchs serving as household slaves of the royal courts, making them more dependable and servile to masters. Early Freudian psychoanalysis, and especially that of his former student William Reich, have argued that sexual liberty boosts the spirit of liberty and even rebelliousness among individuals and collectives and that castration was an exercise in suppressing this spirit. In their view FGM, the removal of the all or part of the clitoris, is also another form of “castration” since it is the whole or partial removal of the erectile part of the female genital. So it follows logically that FGM is a most gruesome remnant of female sexual and even social suppression.
It is with this abhorrence that the West has viewed FGM, an old barbaric relic of ancient patriarchy that must be stopped at all cost particularly in this modern day of the advanced march towards absolute gender equality.
It is important to note that the fight against FGM is not only inspired by the West, in the Gambia it has almost always been top-down not bottom-up, never been initiated by any spontaneous action of the victims of the practice themselves. It is done on their behalf by others they, one way or the other considered as outsiders. This is one of the things that make the fight against FGM some what precarious. The victims who ought to themselves be part of, if not leading, the fight can hope for little redemption as the act of FGM cannot be undone and potential victims too young to have their opinion considered. Furthermore, GAMCOTRAP and others are now again calling for legislation against FGM.
But this is a rather controversial call, as implied in this is recognizing the “right” of the state, already excessively fussy and totalitarian, to interfere in the bedroom affairs of citizens. And even if there was to be legislation against the practice, it would be a hollow victory due to its very limited enforceability. The practice of FGM, all over Africa, from among the Bondo and Poro Societies in Sierra Leone, the Grebos in Liberia, to the Jola-speaking folk of Gambia, as well as others there too, has always been shrouded in ritual secrecy. The legislated ban against the practice in neighbouring Senegal is illustrative enough. The ban has failed to even check, much less abolish the practice of mass annual celebrated female genital cutting ceremonies attended by thousands in the southern Senegalese province of the Casamance. Hundreds of people cross the borders of Guinea Bissau and the Gambia to join the celebrations each year despite the ban.
So calling for a legislation against the practice of FGM in the Gambia is both unwittingly strengthening the hands of totalitarianism while being unable to achieve much practically. This is why, I think, the anti-FGM movement ought to go back to the drawing board to have a fresh look at its strategies, tactics and prioritization.
Perhaps a more pragmatic approach would be to go on with a tactic of looking for small achievable and incremental gains like for example calling for more regulation of the practice with a view of reducing the health risks involved, introducing and imposing a minimum age limit for those to be caught and training FGM matrons, or nyansinbalu, on best health practices.
After all, recent urbanization and dislocation from cultural home territories and modernization have been taking their toll on the practice, steadily reducing the number of girls subjected to the cutting every year, So signs are, FGM will slowly but steadily die out on its own terms. Finally, we must remember that the debate required to make the anti-FGM struggle one of the masses of victims and potential, and not of patrons, requires a debate and free exchange of opinions that cannot take place in the current political dispensation.
During the discussions at Manduar several of my attempts to introduce other aspects or forms of gender inequality and even repression were blocked, it seemed to me, deliberately by the other participants. To them FGM is the be-all and end-all of the gender question in The Gambia. This contention needs to be revisited by the activists themselves. There are other more pressing issues. Though I do not have reliable statistics to back this, but it is my tendency to believe that more Gambian teenage girls and young women die every year in backyard abortion chambers than of the practice of FGM. The inherent laws, code, or regulations are not in line with the principles of gender parity.
By way of conclusion allow me to ask this. Why do the Gambian gender activists shy away from talking about abortion rights? Fear of religious fundamentalist, or because the issue is being drowned out by project-funded campaign against FGM?