Gambia moves toward overturning landmark ban on female genital cutting

Lawmakers in the West African country voted to advance a bill repealing a 2015 ban. If it passes the final round of voting, Gambia will become the first nation to roll back protections against the practice.

By Malick Njie/Reuters

New York Times (18.03.2024) – Protesters outside the National Assembly in the capital of Gambia on Monday hold signs asking legislators not to repeal the law banning female genital cutting.Malick Njie/Reuters

Gambian lawmakers have voted to advance a measure revoking a ban on female genital cutting by removing legal protections for millions of girls, raising fears that other countries could follow suit.

Of the 47 members of the Gambia National Assembly present on Monday, 42 voted to send a bill to overturn the ban onward to a committee for consideration before a final vote. Human rights experts, lawyers and women’s and girls’ rights campaigners say that overturning the ban would undo decades of work to end female genital cutting, a centuries-old ritual tied up in ideas of sexual purity, obedience and control.

If the bill passes the final stages, the small West African nation of Gambia will become the first nation globally to roll back protections against cutting.

Government committees will be able to propose amendments before it comes back to Parliament for a final reading in about three months — but analysts say that it has now passed the key stage: Its proponents will gain momentum and it will probably become law.

Gambia banned cutting in 2015 but did not enforce the ban until last year, when three practitioners were given hefty fines. An influential imam in the Muslim-majority country took up the cause and has been leading calls to repeal the ban, claiming that cutting — which in Gambia usually involves removing the clitoris and labia minora of girls between the ages of 10 and 15 — is a religious obligation and important culturally.

Anti-cutting campaigners gathered outside Parliament in Banjul, Gambia’s capital, on Monday morning, but police set up barricades and prevented many from getting inside — while allowing in the religious leaders who advocate cutting and their supporters, according to Fatou Baldeh, one of Gambia’s leading opponents of genital cutting.

Photo credits: Material used for teaching against FGM in an African country