Fiery activist persuades Gambia to ban FGM
Gambian rights activist Isatou Touray has dedicated her life to ridding her country of female genital mutilation (FGM). In return she has received death threats, been imprisoned and suffered repeated harassment.
But Touray has good news. This year, the tiny West African country is finally set to pass a law banning the brutal ritual, which causes horrific pain and long-term health and psychological problems.
Around 78 percent of women and girls in Gambia are thought to have undergone FGM, which is practised by seven ethnic groups in the predominantly Muslim country.
But attitudes are changing so fast that Touray – Gambia’s most high-profile campaigner against FGM – is optimistic she could see genital mutilation wiped out in her lifetime.
“By 2020 we should be able to have an FGM-free country in The Gambia,” she said.
This weekend, Touray will be attending what is called a “dropping the knife” ceremony. On Saturday, 336 villages will renounce the practice in the Central River Region in a mass declaration.
FGM, which involves removing the clitoris and other external genitalia, is carried out by traditional cutters. Parents say it confers social status and is a prerequisite for marriage.
But the practice can cause a host of medical problems including cysts, chronic infections and childbirth difficulties.
The ritual itself can prove fatal but no one knows how many girls bleed to death or die from infections like tetanus spread by unsterilised knives.
FGM used to be carried out on girls between the ages of 10 and 14, but Touray says growing opposition means parents are arranging for their daughters to be cut at a younger age, sometimes as babies, before they can put up resistance or alert others.
Touray, now 57, is chief executive of the Gambia Committee on Traditional Practices (GAMCOTRAP), a women’s rights organisation that works to end FGM and child marriage and promotes girls education.
Until recently she was facing possible jail after she was accused of embezzling donor money. Rights activists say the case, which dragged on for two years, was politically motivated.
Touray, who was sent to a notorious prison before being released on bail, was finally exonerated in November.
She says the authorities had been looking for an excuse to arrest her for years.
“I was really harassed,” she said. “They wanted to make sure I leave the country. They thought they could silence me.”
But the fiery campaigner is not a woman who is easily silenced.
I first came across Touray in Rome in February at an international conference to discuss the new U.N. resolution on eliminating FGM.
Touray spoke with such force and passion that she was almost shouting. She overran her allotted time and ignored the poor moderator’s attempts to rein her in. Her speech was the most powerful of the event.
In person, she is courteous, patient and softly spoken – but the formidable determination is still clear to see.
Touray told me how she was circumcised as a girl and grew up believing it was an important part of her culture and a religious obligation.
She began to learn about the health consequences after meeting her husband, a medical doctor, and subsequently discovered there was no mention of FGM in the Koran.
Touray decided not to have her own daughters cut – a radical move at the time – and that she would make it her life’s work to eradicate the practice from Gambia as “my contribution to national development”.
But there are so many beliefs and taboos around the ritual that she was very worried when she started campaigning.
“I was told I was not going to live long. People said should we be talking about this sacred thing?” she said.
One of the biggest challenges for campaigners is dispelling the widespread misconception that FGM is a religious duty. It is dangerous work and activists have been accused of attacking Islam and the Koran.
Health education has been another large focus of Touray’s work in Gambia where many communities also hold traditional beliefs.
“They thought if a woman died or had problems in childbirth it was caused by witchcraft, but now they understand it is caused by the cutting,” she said.
Under the proposed law, anyone who performs FGM on a girl is liable to a 10-year jail term or a life sentence if she dies.
Touray says the law is needed not only to protect women’s rights, but also children’s rights.
“Most of the time children who are circumcised do not choose to be circumcised. They have not consented to it and therefore they have to be protected,” she added.
Many African countries already have laws against FGM but mostly these are widely disregarded.
Touray says the crucial difference with Gambia is that the law has not been imposed from above, but has grown out of a concerted grassroots campaign that has won the support of religious leaders, women’s representatives, youth leaders and community elders.
Since 2007, some 683 communities have abandoned FGM in three mass declarations. Saturday’s ceremony will see that figure top 1,000.
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(Photo supplied by GAMCOTRAP)