Activists celebrate as The Gambia follows Nigeria’s decision to end FGM.
Campaigners are celebrating news this week that female genital mutilation (FGM) has been criminalized in The Gambia, a victory which comes in the wake of Nigeria’s recent decision to outlaw the practice. It is hoped that the progressive changes seen in these two African countries will encourage others to follow suit.
President Yahya Jammeh announced on Tuesday that he would outlaw the barbaric tradition of ‘cutting’ girls’ genitalia with immediate effect, and it is thought that his decision is a direct result of fierce and persistent campaigning by survivors of FGM. In October we published the harrowing story of Gambian FGM survivor Jaha Dukureh, who was crowdfunding to raise money to make a documentary about the issue. She told the Guardian:
“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. I think the president cared about the issue, it was just something that was never brought to his attention.”
“The amazing thing is 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.”
Jaha has won a huge victory this week, but the war on FGM is far from over. It is common in 29 countries across Africa and the Middle East, with over 130 million girls and young women subjected to the archaic practice. During the unimaginably painful process, a girl’s labia and/or clitoris is cut off, usually with a knife or razor blade. In some cases, like Jaha’s, the vagina is then stitched up until a girl’s wedding day. The effects of FGM are horrific: it can cause prolonged bleeding, infection, infertility and even death, not to mention emotional and mental trauma. So why on earth do people do this to their daughters?
According to UNICEF: ‘FGM is a fundamental violation of the rights of girls and is a deeply entrenched social norm. It is a manifestation of gender discrimination. The practice is perpetrated by families without a primary intention of violence, but is de facto violent in nature. Communities practice FGM in the belief that it will ensure a girl’s proper marriage, chastity, beauty or family honor. Some also associate it with religious beliefs although no religious scriptures require it. The practice is such a powerful social norm that families have their daughters cut even when they are aware of the harm it can cause. If families were to stop practicing on their own they would risk the marriage prospects of their daughter as well as the family’s status.’
Female genital mutilation has been practiced for centuries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Changing laws is a step in the right direction, but campaigners warn that attitudes must also change before we can hope to see a world free from FGM. The good news is that UNICEF reports the chance that a girl will be cut today is about one third lower than it was around thirty ago.
‘Kenya and Tanzania have seen rates drop to a third of their levels three decades ago through a combination of community activism and legislation’, says the report. ‘In the Central African Republic, Iraq, Liberia and Nigeria, prevalence has dropped by as much as half. Attitudes are also changing: recent data show that the majority of people in the countries where FGM is practiced believe it should end, but continue to compel their daughters to undergo the procedure because of strong social pressure.’
The progressive changes taking place in Nigeria and The Gambia are proof that activism works. Let’s hope that legal protection is the first step in a long process to change attitudes and negative cultural beliefs, meaning an end to FGM in the next few generations.
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