Premature Celebration for Gambia’s FGM Ban

The Gambia was thrust into the spotlight this week after the country’s longtime president, Yahya Jammeh, announced a ban on female genital mutilation (FGM). This pronouncement surprised many, especially after the country’s National Assembly rejected a similar proposal in March of this year, claiming that Gambians “were not ready.” Activists who work closely on the issue say that over 130 million girls worldwide have undergone FGM, mainly in Africa, where it is reportedly practiced in 29 countries. In The Gambia, the prevalence of FGM is relatively high and apparently growing in popularity with infant girls. Overall, UNICEF estimates that nearly 8 in 10 Gambian women have experienced the procedure.

Since President Jammeh made the announcement on Monday, one media outlet has particularly trumpeted this victory. Anti-FGM groups, which have done tremendous work by providing a much-needed voice and care to victims have also praised the decision while highlighting their own involvement. Interestingly, international journalists have left out the fact that local media in The Gambia have been silent. Why? Because a free press is nonexistent, and most of the country’s independent journalists have either been killed by the Jammeh regime, live in exile, or are currently languishing in prison.

Lost in all the celebrations, particularly on social media, is the fact that FGM is not banned in The Gambia, at least not yet. There is no enforceable law on the books. And recall that Jammeh is prone to making outlandish, bizarre, and one-off statements. The last time Jammeh actually lived up to a promise was when he publicly vowed to summarily execute death row inmates, which was carried out in August 2012.

Also missing from the articles that highlight Gambia’s supposed ban on FGM is that Jammeh is likely only trying to improve his country’s image. Soon, the European Union will decide the fate of a multi-million dollar aid package that was initially suspended due to increasing human rights concerns. The Gambia’s treasury is broke and Jammeh needs all the assistance he can possibly muster.

In regards to The Gambia, observers often have a hard time understanding how utterly deplorable the situation truly is, and human rights violations there go unreported, or at best underreported. At the same time of the FGM announcement, for instance, 33 activists protesting illegal sand mining in their community were detained, allegedly tortured, and are now being held at the country’s Mile 2 maximum security prison. This incident has thus far failed to make the pages of any international media outlet.

As a human rights activist, I strongly encourage celebrating small victories – it undoubtedly helps to keep us sane – and the announced ban on FGM is surely one of them. However, given Jammeh’s track record of abuse and erratic behavior, let us hold off on popping the champagne until this “ban” amounts to more than just rhetoric.