The Gambia: where the Western consensus on FGM has come unstuck

In the United States, Australia, and Europe there can be no cause more idealistic, more popular, and more progressive than the abolition of female genital mutilation (FGM). Many countries have banned it; NGOs educate people about it. The United Nations has proclaimed February 6 as International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation.

According to the World Health Organization, FGM has been declining over the past 30 years. In the 1990s, one in two girls between 15 and 19 had undergone FGM in countries where it was traditional; today, the figure is just one in three. Hopefully, says WHO, it will soon be consigned to the rubbish bin of history.

But there is a snag.

International solidarity has broken down in The Gambia. The parliament of this Muslim-majority west African country recently voted overwhelmingly to reverse its 2015 ban on FGM. Many of the local MPs say that FGM is needed to “uphold religious loyalty and safeguard cultural norms and values”. The bill still needs to be reviewed by a parliamentary committee before a final vote.

In short, The Gambia, a nation of 2.5 million in West Africa, could become the first country to defy the international consensus on FGM.

Don’t get me wrong. I agree that FGM is an appalling violation of human rights. The WHO’s fact sheet describing FGM is gut-wrenching. It is demeaning, sexist, unhealthy, and painful.

However, from a political point of view, the debate over banning FGM presents a political conundrum for the Western nations who fund and publicise the campaign against FGM in Africa and the Middle East.

UNICEF and UNFPA say that “The introduction of the ban on FGM in The Gambia in 2015 represent[ed] a significant milestone in the country's efforts to safeguard the rights and well-being of its female population, and was seen as a model of progressive legislation worldwide.” True enough.

But it was imposed on the citizens of The Gambia by loathsome dictator, Yahya Jammeh. Mr Jammeh, who ruled from 1996 to 2017, is currently in exile in Equatorial Guinea. Human Rights Watch says that he was responsible for “widespread abuses, including forced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, and arbitrary detention.” The description of the abuses is blood-curdling. The number of women who have accused him of rape suggests that he was not a champion of women’s rights.

But for some reason, he banned FGM, perhaps to curry favour with Western benefactors. The leading anti-FGM activist in The Gambia, Jaha Dukureh, whose campaign is supported by The Guardian, was overjoyed at the time. “He put women and girls first, this could negatively affect him, but this shows he cares more about women than losing people’s votes,” said Dukureh.

It didn’t seem to occur to her or to anyone in the West that the ban was an unpopular and undemocratic move. No one asked what Gambian voters thought of their dictator’s conversion to the international consensus.




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Now the citizens of The Gambia face a choice between an unpopular policy forced upon them by a dictator or a popular policy which will have been democratically adopted. Which would you choose? 

As reported in a local newspaper, The Point, one MP declared in the debate: “99.9% disagreed with the banning of female circumcision. This has been in the Women Act since 2015 but not in the Constitution. The Constitution is the supreme law of the people; the freedom of rights and religion law, the National Assembly should not make any law that is against the will of the citizens. The purpose of this is not based on health but rather against our religion.”

Another said: “We cannot condemn our tradition. Even the whites have their own tradition. We cannot impose what the people are not in for.”

Again, FGM is an awful custom. But how can Westerners criticise it when they freely allow abortion, euthanasia, and mutilating “gender-affirming” surgery in their own countries? Wouldn’t Gambians be right to argue that if “whites” have their own tradition of killing unborn children; why shouldn’t they be allowed to have FGM?

The conundrum is this. In almost every question about so-called “reproductive health”, we Westerners believe that a majority vote in a democratic system determines what is acceptable and what is not. The exception to this rule seems to be African voters. But if Westerners truly believe that democracy determines what is right and wrong and choose abortion, why shouldn’t Gambians be able to choose FGM?

After all, if Westerners really believe in cultural relativism, shouldn’t they be consistent? 

Michael Cook is editor of Mercator

Image credit: Unicef



Showing 6 reactions

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  • David Page
    commented 2024-04-09 10:09:12 +1000
    “We in the West” do not believe in ‘cultural relativism’. We believe in individual rights. And, in a constitutional democracy, we believe that rights cannot be taken away from individuals by consensus. So, do you believe that the majority have the right to tell a teenage girl that she must be mutilated?
  • mrscracker
    Anonymous, I don’t think this is really about Islam.
  • Friend
    commented 2024-04-04 23:39:08 +1100
    Perhaps we shouldn’t lead with “consensus” but commit to evangelisation. It’s not that FGM is anti-woman, but that Islam is anti-woman. We can let them abuse their women in the name of their religion, or introduce them to a religion that will uplift and honour their women. It’s all of a piece.
  • mrscracker
    I don’t understand how people in the developed West promote their own much more drastic & mutilating genital surgeries on confused young people & then self-righteously attack African customs as barbaric.
  • Peter DeMarco
    commented 2024-04-02 21:30:07 +1100
    Brilliant! The logic of the left is lunacy.
  • Michael Cook
    published this page in The Latest 2024-04-02 17:18:41 +1100