Musu Bakoto Sawo, Programme Officer for The Girl Generation in The Gambia, shares her reflections on recent legislative gains, and possible risks to these gains, as well as the role of young people in advocating for progressive policies.
The Gambia is one of the smallest countries in mainland Africa, with a population of 1.8 million. More than 75% of women and girls in the country have undergone Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), with no evidence that rates of the practice are declining. The campaign to end FGM has been ongoing for more than three decades, with activists and human rights advocates actively engaging the State, as well as affected communities, to influence both policy and behavioral change.
The practice was only criminalised in 2015, following an executive directive from the former President of The Gambia, Yahya Jammeh. This was subsequently followed by the enactment of the Women’s Amendment Act 2015, which bans the practice. Although the law alone will not necessarily lead to a change in the practice, it gives us greater legitimacy as we work towards the broader social change needed to end FGM in a generation. Advocacy by young people played an important role in achieving the ban on FGM - and we will continue to keep up the pressure.
Gaps in current legislation
Gaps exist in the current legislation, including the issue of cross-border cutting, which allows people to travel to neighboring countries like Guinea Bissau where the practice has not been criminalised. Families are reportedly taking their girls across the border to have them mutilated without any legal actions taken against them. Gaps like this will be a major obstacle in the campaign to end FGM in the Gambia, and will defeat the purpose for which the Women’s Amendment Act 2015 has been enacted.
To end this, The Youth Anti-FGM Network in The Gambia has deemed it necessary for its members to carry out advocacy to influence decision-makers, to ensure that legislation provides further protection for women and girls, including from FGM. The network is a youth-led movement initiated and supported by The Girl Generation, with the objective of amplifying the voices of young people to end FGM in one generation. So far, it comprises more than fifty youth organisations working to end FGM in The Gambia. Since its inception, the network has put in place strategies and plans to accelerate the abandonment of FGM. These include strong advocacy for the amendment of the law banning FGM in The Gambia.
Most of the young activists in the network have had extensive experience working in the end FGM campaign, and they have also taken part in a series of networking opportunities and trainings supported by The Girl Generation. Strong youth leadership is emerging from the youth network. One of their exceptional activists is Mariama Saine, a committed advocate for youth development and progress, and Vice Chairperson of the network. We rely on highly politically engaged young people such as Mariama, who are well equipped with the requisite skills to take such actions. She has been consistently calling for stronger legislation to end FGM from the community level all the way to the national level, using the media, social media, and rallying people at community level for open discussions.
What the future holds
Following the recent change in government, the new administration is expected to amend most of the restrictive legislation enacted by the previous administration. This responsibility, however, lies solely with the legislative arm of government. With a recent call by political candidates for the National Assembly to repeal the law banning FGM, the active political engagement of people who are passionate and committed to ending FGM in the Gambia - like Mariama - is crucial. With women making up 51% of our population, it is quite disproportionate that they constitute only 9.4% of the National Assembly – so it is extremely important that powerful young women activists make their demands heard.
The Youth Anti-FGM Network is committed to taking action to ensure that legislators do not obliterate the legal gains to support an end to FGM in The Gambia. The intention is to push for legislation that is gender-friendly, and to close the existing gaps in the law regarding cross-border cutting.
“Ending FGM in the Gambia is in the hands of young people. I am committed and have dedicated my life to end it, in my family and in my country”
- Mariama Saine