Religion Fuels Gambia's Shocking Bid to Re-Legalize Female Genital Mutila..

As more and more countries worldwide outlaw the practice of female genital mutilation, the West African country of The Gambia might be the first country in the world to repeal such a ban, stoking a wave of criticism from human rights advocates both in Gambia and abroad.

The Gambian National Assembly passed a bill on March 18th that would repeal a 2015 law that criminalizes all acts of female genital mutilation. The bill's advancement greatly alarmed health and human rights activists in The Gambia and worldwide.

"This is pushback against women's rights," Nimco Ali, an FGM survivor and a co-founder of the Five Foundation, said regarding the legislation. “As soon as we make progress toward equality, the religious right comes together."

A UN report published early in March said that over 230 million women and girls around the world have survived FGM and live with its lasting effects. The practice of cutting, altering, or injuring female genitalia for non-medical reasons, which is still prevalent in many parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, could present serious, potentially deadly risks to young girls and women. 

The campaign to repeal the ban in The Gambia is a testament to how entrenched female genital mutilation is in the country and many parts of the world, which is often regarded as a mandatory rite of passage, a prerequisite for marriage, or even a religious requirement.

"Beyond excruciating pain and severe bleeding, long-term physical and psychological damage can result from the procedure, including infection, infertility, and post-traumatic stress disorder," the UN report said, as well as “childbearing complications, including postpartum hemorrhage, stillbirth, and infant mortality."

Respected Islamic leaders have refuted such links and justifications," Ali said regarding the connection between Islam and FGM. "But if more people become persuaded that there is a religious justification, more people from the religious right will also be attracted."

Many experts and officials support Ali’s argument, including Wisal Ahmed, who manages the program to eliminate FGM run by the UNFPA, the U.N. sexual and reproductive health agency, and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). 

"FGM is not in the Koran," Ahmed said. "It is not in any of the holy books. We have many resources from several U.N. agencies about de-linking religion and FGM and answering religious issues."

The Gambian National Assembly would still have to approve any repeal of the ban, which stays in effect in the meantime. The push to overturn the ban began in August 2023, when three women became the first Gambians to be fined for performing FGM.

"Islamic cleric Imam Abdoulie Fatty, who believes that FGM is prescribed by Islam, found that outrageous," Rose Sarr, the Gambia’s representative for the UNFPA, said. "[He] led a delegation to the women's village and paid their fines."

From there, the movement to repeal the ban has picked up steam over the following years. 

We had hoped that because the ban has the support of so many young people and Gambians that the Assembly would not have voted this way," Ali said. "The President had given assurances that this bill would not go through, but unfortunately, he reneged on that."

Sarr also noted that The Gambia's Speaker of the House opposed any efforts to repeal the ban and said the anti-FGM law is "here to stay." Lawmakers will decide on its fate at the next Assembly session in June.

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