By Louise Hunt
LONDON, Dec 7 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Halimatou dreaded her wedding day. As a child in Gambia she had undergone the most extreme form of female genital mutilation (FGM) and had to be cut open to consummate the marriage. She was 13.
The physical and emotional pain has remained with her, says Halimatou, now a community campaigner against FGM in Gambia where the president has declared a surprise ban on the ancient rite of passage.
President Yahya Jammeh's announcement at the end of November was hailed as a victory by activists who have faced death threats during years of campaigning to end FGM.
But some fear the ban could backfire by driving the deeply entrenched practice underground, unless efforts are stepped up to get religious and community leaders on board.
"We know from other African countries that have introduced bans that legislation is only one part of the jigsaw," said Julia Lalla-Maharajh, head of the British-based Orchid Project which supports anti-FGM programmes in Gambia.
"Cutting is a social norm, held in place by an entire community. Laws can create unintended problems."
In some countries there are signs that parents are increasingly having their daughters cut as babies or toddlers - before they can speak - to reduce the risk of being reported.
Three quarters of women and girls in Gambia have undergone FGM which involves removing the clitoris and external genitalia.
The most extreme form of FGM, in which the vaginal opening is also sewn closed, is only performed by a few ethnic groups, including the Fula to which Halimatou belongs. Traditional cutters re-open the girls' vaginas before marriage.
"My husband didn't wait for me to heal before having sex with me. He hurt me badly," said Halimatou, now 26, talking to the Thomson Reuters Foundation on the verandah of her home.
When she gave birth to her daughter she had to have an emergency Caesarean section, but the wound became infected, leaving her disabled for several years.
Parents say cutting confers status and is a prerequisite for marriage. Many in the predominantly Muslim country also believe it is a religious duty even though it is not mentioned in the Koran.
But FGM can cause a host of health problems including potentially fatal haemorrhaging and childbirth complications later in life.
Hazel Barrett, a British expert on FGM who was in Gambia at the time of the announcement, said the response among those she spoke to was muted.
"It is a positive first step, but I think many people feel that it won't change much. They are concerned that the practice will go underground," said Barrett, a professor at Coventry University.
"If you are from an ethnic group that practises circumcision then it would be very difficult to not have your daughter cut. Uncircumcised women are ostracised, they are seen as unclean, they can't marry, they are not even allowed to eat with others."
Ansou Kambaye, coordinator of Tostan Gambia, an organisation working to end FGM, said although the president's declaration was "very powerful" he was bracing for strong opposition.
"Tostan has a lot to do now because there will be resistance from the part of the population that think it has to be practised," he said.
Jammeh's decree that Islam does not require FGM will put pressure on Islamic leaders, many of whom have been resistant to change.
UNICEF, which has long pressed government ministers for a ban, is now calling for a fatwa on FGM, which predates Islam.
The agency's country representative Sara Beysolow Nyanti hoped a law would be in place by the end of 2016, but admitted it would not lead to automatic abandonment of the rite.
Every year an estimated 3 million girls undergo FGM across a swathe of African countries even though most have already introduced laws banning it.
However, change can happen. In Gambia's Upper River Region, where FGM is almost universal, 145 villages have pledged to abandon cutting and early marriage. Halimatou's village, Samba Tako, surrounded by baked scrubland, is one of these.
The pledges follow an initiative run by Tostan Gambia, in collaboration with UNICEF and the government's women's bureau, which teach communities about human rights and health before addressing the harms of FGM and early marriage.
"Before the programme a lot of girls were being cut, some were very young. People believe that if a girl is not cut she might become a prostitute," said Lamin, a 21-year-old man from Samba Tako.
"We have made it a rule that FGM won't be practised here, and we often go and talk to other villagers about stopping the practice."
Halimatou has escaped her violent marriage and now lives with her 10-year-old daughter Ramatoulie in a neatly arranged, one-room shack. She is too afraid of pain to remarry.
"My daughter will never be circumcised and I want her to be at least 30 years old before she gets married. I have experienced the penalty of both practices," said Halimatou.
(Editing by Emma Batha; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.