‘Right to freedom from torture’: UN experts urge the Gambia not to decriminalise FGM

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A team of UN experts has urged Gambian lawmakers not to repeal a ban on female genital mutilation, saying such a move would set a dangerous global precedent.

In a letter dated 8 April and made public on Thursday, the experts, led by Reem Alsalem, the UN special rapporteur on violence against women and girls, said allowing the unchecked return of “one of the most pernicious forms of violence committed against women and children” would violate their right to freedom from torture.

Mama Fatima Singhateh, who was the Gambian justice minister when the law banning FGM was passed in 2015 and is now special rapporteur on the sale, sexual exploitation and sexual abuse of children, was also one of the four signees.

Gambian lawmakers overwhelmingly backed an amendment to the law banning FGM in a second-round vote on 18 March.

Almameh Gibba, the legislator who sponsored the new bill, said he did so to “uphold religious loyalty and safeguard cultural norms and values” in the Muslim-majority state.

The Gambia banned FGM in 2015 in a law that makes the practice punishable by up to three years in prison or 50,000 dalasis (£586) in fines. It was the outcome of years of lobbying by rights groups within and beyond the country, with some of them led by FGM survivors.

“In addition to the backtracking that the intended amendments would result in the rights of women and girls in the Gambia, it would set a dangerous global precedence of governments facilitating female genital mutilation, instead of directing resources to the prevention of and protection from the practice,” the letter says.

About half of the west African country’s 2.7 million people are women. Many of them have either had to go through the practice or have relatives who have done so. UN estimates say that could be as high as up to three-quarters of all women between 18 and 49 in the country.

The law came as a relief to girls and women. It was widely hailed by the international community as a sign of progress and an example for other countries to follow. But it was unpopular in sections of the Gambia, which remains a deeply religious society.

Calls to repeal it began last year after the first major conviction under the law: three women in the northern village of Bakadagi were found guilty of mutilating eight infant girls.

Even though the fines of 15,000 dalasi (£176) each were considered lenient, an influential imam was sufficiently displeased by the matter that he paid part of their fines and then started a campaign to roll back the law.

“This campaign against female circumcision is actually a fight against Islam. But we are ready to sacrifice everything … those who arrested them and the magistrate who sentenced them and any other person who support them, we will curse them until we leave this world to ensure that Allah destroys them,” Abdoulie Fatty, the imam, was quoted as saying last September by local daily the Standard.

That campaign soon made its way to parliament where a final vote is now set for June. However, the president would still be required to give final assent to the change.

If successful, the amendment would mean the “wellbeing, safety and security of women and girls in the Gambia is not the priority for the government”, Alsalem told the Guardian in an email.

Some experts fear the action could also stagnate the fight to entrench the rights of women and girls more generally.

“What happens in the Gambia does not stay in the Gambia,” Alsalem said.

Source: theguardian.com

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