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Female Genital Mutilation in Gambia

Introduction To Female Circumcision:
The controversial practice of genital mutilation or FGM is traditionally performed on women is widely practiced in Gambia particularly away from the urban areas and in the up-river rural areas. FGM is practiced around the world and it is estimated that around 120 million females have had it performed on them. The procedure though is particularly prevalent in Africa. Female circumcision has less to do with religion and more to do with African culture as it is not something prescribed by Islam.

FGM involves the cutting away of parts of the outer female genitalia and estimated statistics show that approximately 80% of women have had it performed 1 or 2 years before their teens. The procedure is also practiced by an estimated 7 out of 9 ethnic groups in Gambia. As of December 2007 no law prohibits any form of FGM.  Its origins are unknown but female circumcision is known to have been performed on young girls before the birth of Islam or Christianity and cut across cultural and religious lines.

In the Gambia the practice of FGM has traditionally been conducted in a context of secrecy, and excision is seen as giving power to girls in their rite of passage into womanhood.

In local villages, instruments used to perform the procedure are usually not sterile and it is usually performed by a traditional practitioner with a variety of crude instruments and without anaesthetic. Often many girls are operated on during a single ritual ceremony. In these cases the same razor or knife is often used on a number of girls.  Among the wealthier sections of Gambian society, it may be performed in a health care facility by qualified health workers.

A Symposium for Religious Leaders and Medical Personnel on FGM as a Form of Violence was organised by the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women & Children of The Gambia (GAMCOTRAP). The result was the Banjul Declaration of July 22, 1998, which stated that the practice has neither Christian or Islamic origins or religious justifications and condemned its continued practice.

In 1996 BAFROW (Foundation for Research on Women's Health, Productivity & Development) began working with local communities on an alternative right of passage project for girls, commencing with participatory baseline studies focusing on the Central and Western River Divisions of The Gambia.

The information that was gathered provided data on the prevalence, nature, justification, and factors contributing to the continuation of FGM. This information was disseminated among community leaders who were expected to participate in the creation and delivery of a new rite of passage. BAFROW also conducted community awareness-raising initiatives that targeted women, religious leaders, local chiefs, and religious leaders.

Subsequently BAFROW formed a 30-member advisory committee composed of community and religious leaders as well as health workers, traditional circumcisers, and local government officials. The aim was to develop alternative rites of passage that emphasized girls’ rights as individuals, their health, religious education and community responsibilities. After this, 200 religious experts were gathered from around the Gambia to attended a 2 day workshop to discuss issues about FGM and religious obligations.

The result was the creation of a committee of religious leaders to support BAFROW in its efforts. Thirty-five administrative-district-level chiefs, 50 village heads, and many local government officials were subsequently invited and attended a workshop to plan the execution of the alternative method of rites. Previous circumcisers were trained as village health promoters and as designated facilitators of the new rite-of-passage with specially built sites in selected districts where the new rights of passage would be performed.

Achievements & Statistics:
An analysis of the project's results found a reduction in female circumcision cases: in Fulladu District, 412 girls were circumcised in initiation ceremonies in 1996 which fell to 190 girls in 1997. In Niamina District, 92 girls were cut as part of their initiation ceremonies in 1996 which fell to 12 girls in 1997. There was also a change in attitudes held about FGM. After the project 78% of women surveyed were in favour of FGM abolition, compared to between 30% to 40% in 1996.

Local Contacts Details:
214 Tafsir Demba Mbye Rd.
Tobacco Road Estate, Banjul
P.O. Box 2854
Serrekunda, The Gambia
Tel: +4225270 / 4223471

The Gambia Committee
against Traditional Practices
PO Box 2990
Serrekunda, The Gambia

Types of FGM:
1. Type One:
(Clitoridectomy): This involves the excision (removal) of the clitoral hood with or without removal of all or part of the clitoris.

2. Type Two:
(Excision): This involves the excision of the clitoris along with part or all of the labia minora. This is the most widely practiced form of FGM in Gambia.

3. Type Three:
(Infibulation): This is the removal of part or all of the external genitalia (clitoris, labia minora and labia majora) and stitching or narrowing of the vaginal opening, leaving a very small opening, about the size of a matchstick, to allow for the flow of urine and menstrual blood. This is performed on only a small number of girls.
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