On November 24th, history was made in the Gambia when President Yahya Jammeh publicly condemned female genital mutilation (FGM). Shouting over rapturous applause, President Jammeh said that the controversial practice had no place in a modern society, or in Islam, the country’s predominant religion.
Just a month later, the President’s words became law. According to the bill passed on December 28th, a person who engages in female genital mutilation could face up to three years in prison or a fine of 50,000 dalasi (approximately £900). If FGM results in death, the person responsible could face life imprisonment.
Reaching this point was no easy task. Berhane Raswork, founder of The Inter-African Committee and a leading anti-FGM activist told Al-Jazeera, “This is a result of the work undertaken by some non-governmental organisations and women activists who fought against FGM for something like 30 years at different levels, including the UN system.”
One of these activists is Jaha Dukureh. As detailed by Nadye Khalife, Dukureh has dedicated her life to ending FGM after she went through the harrowing practice herself as a newborn baby. After getting married at 15 years old, she started to question the culturally accepted practice and began campaigning. Now, aged just 25, she was personally asked by Yahya Jammeh to help draft the law she has been working towards for over a decade.
In an interview for the Guardian, she said, “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.”
The personal impact this may have had on President Jammeh’s career did not go unnoticed by Dukureh.“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.”
Unfortunately the President’s empowering attitude towards women is now in question, after an internal government memo was leaked to a local newspaper earlier this month. It orders women working for the government to cover their hair, urging them to use head ties during official office hours.
The memo was sent out just weeks after President Jammeh declared the Gambia an Islamic Republic. Ordering women to cover their hair in the workplace was not received well, and President Jammeh revoked the directive following a flurry of criticism from the international community.
The announcement on a local news channel said that women are the President’s “best friends” and that as he was working for their happiness at all times, he would remove the headscarf requirement immediately.
Though ending FGM was undoubtedly a huge victory for women in the Gambia, concern remains that the embedded cultural beliefs that negatively impact women may take longer to overcome.
In an article for the African Women’s Development Fund, Jama Jack, freelance writer and University Communications Officer at the University of The Gambia, says, “The pronouncement on the ban is a great first step, but it is only the beginning of the end for this campaign. Activists and advocates still have the very important responsibility of raising awareness on the realities of FGM, backed by evidence and data from the different perspectives.”
She says that desire for change must come from within the local culture for the ban to be truly successful, adding that people must understand the consequences and voluntarily choose to protect women and girls from the harm of FGM.
To get involved with ending FGM, or for more information on country-specific campaigns, please visit http://www.theguardian.com/end-fgm or support the organisation End FGM at http://www.endfgm.eu/what-is-fgm/