21 December 2015

Dropping the Knife in The Gambia

Guest blog by Jacqueline Hoover.

On 25 November 2015, GAMCOTRAP (Gambia Committee on Traditional Practices) hosted the fifth Dropping of the Knife in The Gambia in Jarreng, Central River Region South. This was a public declaration to abandon Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in the presence of the whole community. Young and old, men and women, including all the important community leaders from the three districts of Niamina were present to witness the excisors’ pledge to stop the harmful practice of cutting girls.
GAMCOTRAP is a non-governmental organisation working in The Gambia to create awareness about harmful traditional practices affecting women and children. It focuses on health related issues including FGM.

FGM is a very old custom and not practised with the aim to harm. Therefore, many women in The Gambia do not realise that their health problems are caused by FGM. Many assume FGM is a religious obligation. For this reason, Dr Isatou Touray, co-founder and the Executive Director of GAMCOTRAP, believes it is important to inform people of the adverse health effects of FGM. She argues that well informed people will make good decisions about their health.

GAMCOTRAP hosts the Dropping of the Knife ceremonies in specific regions of The Gambia after working with the community over long periods of time. First the different community leaders, including faith leaders, women leaders and the youth are invited to discuss the harmful effects of traditional practices. Eventually all levels of the society hear about the negative health consequences of FGM. GAMCOTRAP especially focuses on educating the cutters and attempts to help them find alternative sources of income. Once a community has reached a consensus and decided to abandon female cutting, GAMCOTRAP organises a ‘Dropping of the Knife’ ceremony for the community. At these events the excisors literally drop their knives and pledge not to harm girls anymore. Since 2007 four such celebrations have been held in The Gambia. 28 Too Many were invited to attend the fifth ceremony in Jarreng and I had the great privilege to join the celebrations.

The day was very well organised. It started with a procession of the cutters entering the grounds of the Jarreng Secondary School. They carried placards announcing their decision not to cut girls anymore. Many people joined them to the beat of drums. The 5th ‘Dropping of the Knife’ was a lively event full of joy, music and dancing. Hundreds of people from the wider region attended the day. Several speeches were given. First all the different chiefs representing the numerous ethic groups present were greeted. Then the imam of the village, Imam Bayo, gave a speech. After him, Chief Tourey, the district chief, spoke. Then the chairman of GAMCOTRAP, Yahya Jarjusey. Amie Bojang-Sissoho, the Programme Coordinator of GAMCOTRAP addressed the audience several times during the day. She was a very lively speaker. Later, the Alkalilu, the village head, shared interesting information about Jarreng. I learned that 5000 people make it their home. Because many men emigrate, more women and children live in the village than men. There is a dispensary run by a non-governmental organisation with one doctor. The closest hospital is 70 km away. Eighty percent of the population lives of farming and some work as fisherman since the river is only one kilometre away. Jarring village hosts a good school. 

The fifth Dropping of the Knife was celebrated with much music and dancing. Several traditional dance troops entered the school grounds to perform. Many people joined them to dance to their beat. Two Kankurangs dressed with green leaves and legs and arms covered with bark from tree fibre called fara in Mandinka danced wildly. Another one wore a beige outfit and huge horns. I later learned that in the past women, children and uninitiated men were not allowed to see them. They only appeared every seven years for the initiation and circumcision ritual of males. The purpose of their appearance was to round up young boys who were due for circumcision. They used to be armed with machetes to protect the boys while they were being initiated into manhood in the bush. In the National Museum I visited the following day I also read that they represent spirits and were used to fight off evil spirits and magic. Nowadays they appear at local festivities for entertainment. One young man told me that he was very scared of them as a child. I was not surprised, for they surely look like scary characters.

The Jarreng scouts participated and marched in with their band. Also present was world famous Kora player Jaliba Kuyateh, known as the ‘King of Kora’ and his band. He performed several times during the day. His music mixes traditional Gambian music with modern pop music. Pa-Boy, his dancer, who is known throughout The Gambia, entertained the audience with his great dancing skills. The Kora is a West African instrument with 21 strings that is large and something between a lute and a harp. I noticed many young people hanging out around the band.

Towards the end of the event, the cutters were called to the front where they delivered their pledge to end their practice with the support of their community. There were given a certificate confirming their commitment to stop performing FGM and a gift of a mobile phone. It is important that there is ongoing support to the community to ensure that they do not return to their old way of life and organisations like GAMCOTRAP require long term funding to continue their education work.

Several people I spoke to shared how much they had learned about FGM during the day. Many young people I spoke to had not been aware of the harmful effects of FGM on women and children. The presentations informed them about the adverse health effects of FGM on women and children, helping them to make their community safe for girls and women.
FGM is a complex issue in The Gambia. Overall about 76% of all women and girls are circumcised in

The Gambia. But this percentage can vary significantly depending on the region, the ethnic group and the age of the girl or woman. FGM has much higher prevalence rates in the rural areas in the east of the country than in the urban areas on the west coast around the capital city of Banjul. It is far more prevalent among girls and women who are more than 14 years old than among those who are younger. Between 80 to 98% of the women are cut in some ethnic groups like the Mandinka, the Jola, the Fula, the Serahule and the Bambara. Only between 2 to 25% of the women are cut in other ethnic groups like the Wolof, the Serere, the Aku and the Manjago. I learned that each ethnic group has its own rituals and vocabulary, and they perform the cutting at a different age in the girl’s life. Much more research is needed to understand FGM within the different ethnic contexts of Gambia and we also need research into what interventions are most successful in ending the practice. 

Just one day before the fifth Dropping of the Knife ceremony took place in Jarreng on 25 November, the president of The Gambia, his Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr Yahya Jammeh, announced a ban on FGM. Let us hope that the ban on FGM and the activism of so many non-governmental organisations like GAMCOTRAP will lead to the practice becoming a thing of the past in The Gambia, only spoken about in the history books. 

If you want to learn more about FGM in The Gambia, read the excellent ‘Country Profile: FGM in The Gambia’ produced in March 2015 by 28 Too Many.

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