28 July 2016

The role of Gambian men in the fight against FGM in The Gambia

Guest blog by Andrew Mendy. The fight to end FGM in the Gambia and other practicing nations will almost be impossible without the active involvement and participation of men. Hence, it is important that all stakeholders in this fight get the men on board sooner rather than later.  This is crucial as the men in their roles as fathers, husbands, community and religious leaders may play a leading and pivotal role in the abandonment of FGM.

FGM is practiced in over 28 countries mainly across Africa and the Middle East. However, this does not mean the practice is only a problem in those parts of the world. More developed economies such as the United States, Europe and Australia are also faced with the problem. Evidence has pointed to cases of FGM in countries such as the US, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Australia and many others, although most of the cases are linked to the migrant communities in these countries. FGM can be classed as a transnational public health, human rights, and gender injustice issue, which has affected more than 125 million girls and women across the world according UNICEF reports.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) definition, FGM refers to all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. Most of the victims of FGM are usually girls from birth to age 15. FGM have serious consequences for the victims and survivors as girls may die during the cutting as a result of haemorrhage or infection. Furthermore, they could suffer intensive bleeding, difficulty during childbirth, urinary problems amongst others. The survivors could also experience significant physical, psychological and sexual complications. 

The practice of FGM is still continuing in many countries even those that have banned it such as the Gambia. There are many reasons as to why the practice continues in the Gambia and others parts of the world.  In my master’s thesis, I investigated the reasons why FGM was carried out in the Gambia and in my findings; it was evident from the data collected that FGM in the Gambia just like other practicing countries is done for non-medical reasons. The findings indicated that the practice is based mainly on cultural, religious and traditional reasons.

The research also identified a lack of in-depth knowledge about the harm and dangers of FGM as one of the reasons for the prevalence of FGM in the Gambia. Statistics shows that the highest prevalence of FGM in The Gambia is in the rural areas where there is a higher percentage of illiteracy. Therefore, it can be argued that as result of this, such communities are less informed about the harm FGM does to their women and young girls. 

As a result of the findings of my research, I made a few recommendations:

  • Evidence from the study shows that, FGM is seen as a cultural issue particularly among the practicing communities in The Gambia. Therefore, it is a difficult problem to deal with, as it is deep-rooted and hence sensitive. The solution requires a change of attitude within the practicing communities. However, this cannot be achieved without people having a deeper understanding of the problem.
  • The way to help people understand the problem of FGM in The Gambia is by increase sensitization in the local media, both print and electronic. Furthermore, the government should carry out a nationwide sensitization campaign to raise the awareness about the harm of FGM. This can be decentralised and carried out with the collaboration of the regional councils in The Gambia.
  • Secondly, since there are national and international cultural events such as the Roots Homecoming Festival, where almost all ethnic cultural groups are represented, it should be used as a platform to educate people about FGM and its dangers.
  • On the belief that religion particularly Islam allows FGM, the research recommended that in order to deal with this misconception, Islamic scholars and leaders in the Gambia have a big role to play. They should be actively involved in the sensitisation of the dangers of FGM and call for its abolition from their religious pulpits. Since they command great respect in the Gambian society, they can be important in the fight to end FGM in the Gambia. However, they should be provided with training to ensure they have a clear understanding of the harm associated with the practice and at the same time, armed with the right knowledge to pass unto their congregations.
  • Lastly, educating the public about FGM, raising more awareness and other forms of advocacy are positive steps in the fight against FGM in the Gambia. However, this alone may not stop the practice. The government of the Gambia should take a leading role in this fight by passing legislation that bans the practice. This law should be effectively enforced and culprits punished accordingly. However, for successful eradication of the practice there has to be meaningful education and dialogue between state institutions and practising communities. Until this happens, it will be a long fight with little hope of success.

At this point, it is worth noting that the government of the Gambia have acted on the last recommendation by banning FGM and approving a bill in parliament in early 2016 that enforces the ban. The new law stipulates that a person who engages in female circumcision could face up to three years in prison or a fine of 50,000 dalasi ($1,250) and a person could face life imprisonment if the act results in the loss of life of the victim.

The recent developments in the Gambia on the fight against FGM have been encouraging but it will be a massive deception to think the job is done; we cannot sit back and relax with the confidence that FGM in the Gambia is a thing of the past. That would be a grave error of judgment. On the contrary, this is the time to push the momentum and press on until every girl and woman no longer stands the risk of being subjected to the horrors of FGM in The Gambia. For this to happen, the Gambian men must be brought into the equation. The men must not be distant spectators but instead, very active players.

Looking at the Gambian society and as earlier observed, Gambian men in their roles as fathers, husbands, community and religious leaders have a leading and pivotal role to play in the fight to end FGM in The Gambia. Men in the Gambia are often the heads of the household and as such, they carry great weight of respect. They are often the decision makers in almost all important matters in the home.  Therefore, if these authority bearers in the Gambian family set-up actively join the fight against FGM, then the fight will be much easier. One would believe that when all men in the Gambia denounce and reject the practice of FGM in their homes, the numbers of FGM cases will drastically drop.

Furthermore, when we examine the role of men as religious leaders in the Gambia; they command great respect across the society. People pay attention to their messages. Therefore, if they all opt into the campaign to end FGM, they should use their religious pulpits to denounce FGM and call on their flock to ensure no girl in their homes is subjected to the practice.  Imagine every religious leader in every city, town, village, hamlet and street in the Gambia preaching the message of ending FGM; what would the impact be? It will be a massive boost and will make a great difference.

Putting aside all the medical consequences of FGM for the survivors, men in the Gambia have a moral responsibility to protect their daughters (born and unborn) as their legal custodians and guardians. One way of protecting them is to ensure that they are not abused. So allowing them to be cut (undergoing FGM) means they have failed in their responsibility. That is why every man in the Gambia has to stand up and be counted in the fight against FGM. The fight should not only be left to the government, international and local campaign organisations and groups, campaigners and activists, but every man in the Gambia must be involved and together with our women we can win the fight and end FGM in the Gambia and give hope to our women and girls.

Author: Andrew Mendy, Founding Member of Spring of Life Association Gambia, London (United Kingdom)

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