A Cut of Control

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The Gambia banned female genital mutilation in 2015 because officials said the tradition of partially removing girls’ genitalia violated human rights. It didn’t, however, enforce it until last year.

That’s when the trouble began.

Now, lawmakers in the tiny West African country, under pressure from influential imams, are considering reversing the ban to “uphold religious loyalty and safeguard cultural norms and values,” reported Semafor. If the new measure passes, it would be the first country to do such a reversal, undoing decades of work to end the centuries-old ritual tied up in ideas of sexual purity, obedience and control, the New York Times explained.

The change is connected to the end of President Yahya Jammeh’s 22-year rule in 2017. Jammeh, an autocrat who frequently jailed and tortured his political opponents, supported female genital mutilation, saying opponents of the practice were “enemies of Islam.” But Jammeh reversed himself in 2015 – potentially because of his more progressively minded Moroccan wife.

Female genital mutilation is common in The Gambia. Seventy-three percent of women between the ages of 15 to 49 in the country have been subjected to the procedure, a statistic that has remained level for three decades, noted Agence France-Presse.

Around 144 million girls in Africa have been cut, usually at the urging of their families, who believe the practice is necessary in order for the girls to be acceptable for marriage, according to the United Nations. The UN noted that as of 2024, 230 million girls worldwide have been subjected to the practice, a 15 percent increase compared with 2016.

Girls who have been cut frequently experience bleeding, infection, psychological trauma, sexual dysfunction, complicated childbirths and, in extreme cases, death, reported Reuters, citing the World Health Organization.

This increase reflects growing populations in countries where female genital mutilation is common, wrote Le Monde, as well as rising poverty since the pandemic and a corresponding decrease in educational opportunities for girls.

In some countries, meanwhile, the percentages of females undergoing the procedure have been decreasing due to efforts by national and international organizations to educate on the practice’s negative effects.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Gambian National Assembly member Lamin Ceesay, who represents a constituency where female genital mutilation is common, casts doubt on those negative side effects.

Other proponents of the practice – mostly imans and the nearly all-male parliament – framed the ban reversal as giving Gambian women a choice between traditional and modern lifestyles, added the Nation, a Kenyan newspaper. Critics of female genital mutilation would say that many girls undergo it when they are as young as five years old, too young to make such a decision.

Jammeh’s successor, President Adama Barrow, has avoided discussing the issue in public, as has the minister in charge of women and families.

Many Gambians worry that the ban reversal heralds the beginning of a broader rollback of women’s rights. As a result, they are girding for political action. “If this law gets repealed, we know they’re coming for more,” anti-female genital mutilation activist Fatou Baldeh told the Council on Foreign Relations. “So we will fight it to the end.”

As she notes, their lives might depend on it.

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