GAMCOTRAP supported by African Women’s Development Fund –AWDF joined the world in celebrating Human Rights DayGAMCOTRAP HOLDS SYMPOSIUM which also marks the end of 16 Days of Activism. The celebration took the form of a symposium which provided panelists human rights activists the opportunity to reflect on the theme: “The Ban on FGM: Perspectives and Impressions on the Pronouncement within the context of the world wide theme : From Peace in the Home to Peace in the World: Make Education Safe for All.”

Speaking at the symposium, the Executive Director of GAMCOTRAP said the day is important to reflect as Human Rights Defenders who are engaging to promote human rights issues.   She appreciated the pronouncement to ban FGM in the Gambia and called on the relevant authorities to take advantage of it to have legislation. During her interventions, Dr. Touray   noted that the basic principles of the Conventions on the Rights of the Child –CRC are violated by FGM and children who have no decision making powers in what happens to them during circumcision should have been protected a long time ago. This is why GAMCOTRAP was persistent in the advocacy to influence the hearts and minds of the population to protect their children. She noted that it should not have taken twenty-one (21) years of research for the President to make a pronouncement. The reason being that the relevant institutions are available to guide the president with the right technical discourse to enable him make an informed choice. However, she appreciated the fact that this pronouncement is towards the right direction and looks forward to a faster pace of legislation to protect the girl-child. She justified the need to engage because the law is for all to have access to justice, thus the need for people to know why the ban on FGM. The GAMCOTRAP Director further noted that traditional practices are used to deny girls their right to education and cited the case of early marriage and other discriminatory practices that prevent girls from completing their educational pursuits to the highest level. Hence the need to call the state to accountability of its commitments to children and women. She argued that knowledge can be used to abuse people like the case of FGM and religion or to empower them like winning the campaign to end FGM, and that education is key to stand against harmful traditional practices. She said there is cause to celebrate because abuse and violence should not be condoned and activists have been vindicated.   She finally noted that the ban on FGM is just the beginning not the end in protecting the children and called on people to belief in the power of knowledge to move the country in the right direction in their different endeavors.

Dr. Touray welcomed the panelists and participants to the symposium stating that it was a forum for academic Freedom and intellectual liberty and argued that if society cannot exercise the freedom of expression, it can lead to mediocrity and violence. Thus it was an opportunity to share ideas to effect change as Human Rights Activists. She asserted that ideas for change can come from few but it is the majority who effect change. It is Incumbent upon the privileged few and the masses to bring about change, as has occurred in the case of changing mindsets and practices about FGM. She asserted that despite the delay in the pronouncement for 21 years, communities and families are protecting their girls as illustrated in the five Dropping of the Knife celebrations led by communities.

Reflecting on the current exodus amongst youths Dr. Touray said it is partly due to unemployment and lack of opportunities and continuous dependent on parents after completing their education. She observed that there is need for strong institutions to ensure development is focused towards the right direction and open up job opportunities for the young people. Young people need to be motivated to remain and engage constructively in the Gambia.

Samboujang Manneh from Child Protection Unit of the Gambia Police Force reflecting on the theme of the symposium said the pronouncement to ban FGM came at a crucial time but have to be fought by all including government institutions and agents.   He argued FGM is an abuse of human rights of girls and women and girls and women have the right to freedom from torture. Mr. Manneh observed the importance of putting the pronouncement into law in place. He advised that Religious leaders should be engaged by upholding the truth about FGM and to support the pronouncement that FGM is prohibited through their sermons and religious schools. The Police Child Protection Officer called on all to reach out to girls to protect their daughters in the future.   Officer Manneh claimed it is time for total eradication of FGM and called for continued partnership to end FGM and protect the lives of young women.

Human Rights Defender Madi Jobarteh said many homes have been battle field due to FGM, young women died because of giving life due to suffering associated to FGM. Young married couples are faced with many associated problems and argued that the State has potential and capacity to know that FGM is not in the Quran and not good for health of women and girls. He held the opinion that there is progress and even without a pronouncement FGM will die out. He observed the important role of the state who should take the responsibility to protect the lives of Gambians from FGM as stated in the Constitutional provision of Chapter 4, Sect 17. Madi Jobarteh further asserted that the practice is used to control women, with gendered messages indoctrinated male dominance and lack self esteem amongst women. He celebrated anti-FGM activists for being vocal and persistent in advancing women and children’s rights.   Mr. Jobarteh challenged that those against the campaign to end FGM cannot gather any evidence from the Holy Quran to justify their claim; and that the damage done to those who have been subjected to FGM cannot be undone. He suggested that there is no ground to allow impunity to continue and there is need for accountability of the institutions that are supposed to advise the government.

Mrs. Ndey Secka- Sallah Visually Impaired Activist said women and girls with disability are faced with multiple disabilities by being subjected to FGM.   She shared testimonies of victims of FGM amongst people with disability which included the unfortunate story of a blind girl who was cut and sealed and had to face serious consequences which contributed to her death doubled with sexual abuse in her marital home. Mrs. Secka-Sallah also highlighted that girls are not informed especially girls with hearing impairment or those visually impaired don’t know about what is being done to them. Even with the ban, people are still thinking about FGM. She concluded by sharing the excitement of hearing a ban on the practice. “I screamed when I heard the ban, and felt that a law should immediately be in place to ban the practice.”

Lamin Manneh, also an activist with the Gambia Association of People with Disability – GAPD for the rights of People with disabilities appreciated the training he received from GAMCOTRAP in the 1990s, which opened his mind to further make investigations on FGM amongst persons with disability who he reiterated are more vulnerable, and gave testimonies to that effect. He emphasized that early marriage is still an issue and it affects the education of young girls.

Dr. Abubacarr Jah joined the world celebrate the efforts to end Violence Against Women and made reference to the Worldwide ban on FGM since 1997, the WHO statement in 2004, which has been reinforced in 2010 by making it illegal for nurses and Doctors to cut girls as well as the UN ban adopted in 2012.   He reiterated that there is need for law and continuous education for people to know why the ban to have a complete eradication of FGM.   Dr. Jah argued that Women will be more whole, and give birth in a less painful manner, will be more self confident, and will help in preserving marriages. The Activist Doctor asserted that children in such families where mothers are healthier and there is peace in the home get more concentration on their education.

Sheikh Omar Fye of the Management Development Institute reminded the audience that this year marks the 24th year of 16 Days of Activism and the theme is apt. He paid tribute to Gender Activists fighting to end FGM for their commitment for the success of others and their unique stand in the fight for the rights of women and girls. He commended GAMCOTRAP and said it is a brand of seasoned calibre of activists who serve as role models for many in the Gambia. They taught many who do not know about FGM.   He recalled that since the first Dropping of the Knife in 2007, there was hope for success and the need for follow up to sustain the gains.   Focusing on the theme, Mr. Fye argued that healthy individuals become more productive and that education leads to enlightenment. He urged all to value the intellectuals, and asserted that peace is invaluable to make all happy in the home and the world. He called for people to hail, respect and value them. “Respect the rights of human beings, there is no room for maltreating the girl child and women. We can’t have peace without peace of mind.” Gender activist Fye also called for devolution of power to the girl child. He commended “GAMCOTRAP for being decisive, resolute and vigilant and remain to be the hope of the people.”

Political and Gender activist Amie Sillah of Women for Democracy and Development – WODD said the day was important for activists to come together because they have been imprisoned, killed and abused. Activists have been on the right side of history. Mrs. Sillah –Sarr said lessons derived from the pronouncement to ban FGM is that the public media should be opened to exchange of ideas and added her voice to the call for law to protect the girl-child.   She reminded the audience that The Gambia has already committed to CEDAW and the Maputo Protocol and said there is no need to reinvent the wheel because GAMCOTRAP has already produced a draft law and advised that the Women’s Bureau and Office of the Vice President responsible for Women’s Affairs to move forward with the document and take it to the National Assembly. She observed that opponents to the anti FGM campaign used the media to call for scientific data, when it was provided they moved the goal post to claim that it was about exposing the bodies of women. Madam Sillah-Sarr concluded “I am a FGM survivor, a poor old woman became the witch. My mother could not protect me because there was no law. I am glad to have it in the curriculum for peace in the home. It has nothing to do with religion but to control Female sexuality. ‘KUYAGA SI TEIN BAG FEKA LAFA’ a Wollof saying literary means “after working hard one bears the fruit of your labor.” The gender activist called for sensitization and education with survivors to give a face to the figures. In her fervent appreciation to the work of GAMCOTRAP to end FGM in the Gambia, the political activist noted “ Your struggle for liberty and dignity was paramount and you went through tribulations to ensure every Gambian parent and adult realize that FGM and Early Marriage should end, and law makers should be inspired by the executive to legislate a law.”

The panel discussions were followed by contributions from participants from all works of life including human rights defenders, health officials and the Police.

There was a call that more needs to be done to protect the girl-child and observed that the idea of Human Rights is global and Gambia cannot be isolated. CSOs should continue to engage and we can celebrate when there is legislation and children are protected. One participant noted,

When the campaign started I was in school. Life is a process, thanks to GAMCOTRAP. The pronouncement is one step in the process; it has to be followed by law.” He advised that CSOs should not relent but to work on what needs to be in the law.

Another participant argued that enough has not being done to protect women and children and question how many cases reported on FGM and prosecuted to protect the girls, called for encouragement of the efforts and to hold people accountable for FGM because women are in marriage without sexual life and end up allowing polygamy to thrive because many are suffering in silence.

Other contributions focused on the need to prepare law enforcement agents on the law once it is legislated and the Ministry of Health to take a more proactive role to pay attention to the needs of the victims, include FGM in its Health Education programmes at ante-natal clinics and on health programmes on in the media.

Prepared by GAMCOTRAP, 11th December 2015