LONDON (TrustLaw) – When Gambian rights activist Isatou Touray began campaigning against female genital mutilation (FGM) she was told she wouldn’t live long. Now the West African country is preparing to pass a law against the brutal practice.
Touray, Gambia’s most high-profile campaigner against FGM, has not only faced death threats but also state harassment during some 25 years of activism. She has spent time in jail and until recently was on trial in a case many say was politically motivated.
But in January, Touray helped mobilise Gambia’s seven regional leaders to back a ban on FGM, paving the way for parliament to pass a law later this year.
Touray, who is also an international campaigner on FGM, has already been instrumental in persuading hundreds of villages in Gambia to renounce the ancient ritual.
Around 78 percent of women and girls are thought to have undergone FGM in the predominantly Muslim country, where seven out of nine ethnic groups follow the practice.
But there has been such a sea change in attitudes that Touray is optimistic she could now see genital mutilation wiped out in her lifetime.
“By 2020 we should be able to have an FGM-free country in the Gambia,” she told TrustLaw.
FGM, which involves removing the clitoris and other external genitalia, is carried out by traditional cutters. In Gambia, it is usually performed on girls under 11. Parents say it confers social status and is a prerequisite for marriage.
But the practice can cause a host of medical problems including cysts, chronic infections and childbirth difficulties. The ritual itself can be fatal.
Health education has been a large part of Touray’s work in Gambia where many communities hold traditional beliefs.
“They thought if a woman died or had problems in childbirth it was caused by witchcraft, but now they understand it is caused by the cutting,” said Touray, who has four children and three grandchildren.
Touray, now 57, is chief executive of the Gambia Committee on Traditional Practices (GAMCOTRAP), a women’s rights organisation that works to end FGM and child marriage and promote girls' education.
Like other women her age from the Malinka ethnic group, she was circumcised as a girl and grew up believing it was an important part of her culture and a religious obligation.
Touray began to learn about the health consequences after meeting her husband, a medical doctor, and subsequently discovering there was no mention of FGM in the Koran.
While studying at the Institute of Social Studies in the Netherlands in the 1980s, Touray wrote her thesis on FGM and decided to dedicate herself to ridding her country of the practice.
“I thought this is my contribution to national development. If I get the right support I’m going back home to go in and deal with this difficult topic,” she said.
“There are so many beliefs and taboos around it that I was so worried when I started. I was told I was not going to live long. People said, ‘should we be talking about this sacred thing?’”
One of the biggest challenges for campaigners is dispelling the widespread misconception that FGM is a religious duty. It is dangerous work and activists are often accused of attacking the Koran.
One of Touray’s early battles was with her own family.
When she and her husband decided not to cut their daughters – now aged 22, 24 and 30 – it was a radical move for the time and caused ructions with her in-laws.
“There was serious resistance. They said how could I be cut and not my daughters. But they came to realise what I said was true … the younger generation who have married have not circumcised their daughters,” she added.
Under the proposed law, anyone who performs FGM on a girl under 18 is liable to a 10-year jail term. If the girl dies, suffers a disability or contracts HIV/AIDS they can face life imprisonment.
Many African countries already have laws against FGM, but for the most part these have been poorly enforced and widely disregarded.
Touray says the crucial difference with Gambia is that the law has not been imposed from above, but has grown out of a grassroots educational campaign which has won the support of religious leaders, women’s representatives, youth leaders and community elders.
“It’s the power of the people for me that matters, because if you want to bring in change and the people don’t know why change should come, it becomes problematical,” she added.
Since 2007, some 683 communities and around 100 cutters have abandoned FGM in three mass declarations.
Touray is now preparing for the fourth “dropping the knife” declaration when 30 cutters and 336 villages will renounce the practice in the Central River Region on April 13.
Events like these make her work worthwhile, but fighting to eradicate FGM has been a “long, very hard journey”, she says.
The lowest point came in October 2010 when she was arrested with her GAMCOTRAP colleague Amie Bojang-Sissoho.
They were accused of embezzling 30,000 euros in donor funds and detained in a notorious prison before being released on bail.
The trial dragged on for two years. They were finally cleared in November with the court ruling there was not a shred of evidence.
Touray says the authorities had been looking for an excuse to arrest her for years “because I talk too much”. Members of the National Intelligence Agency were often sent to spy on her work with communities, she adds.
The International Federation for Human Rights condemned the trial’s 66 hearings as judicial harassment.
“I was really harassed. We were given a lot of problems,” Touray said. “They wanted me to leave the country … It was a bid to silence myself and my friend. But we won at the end of the day.”
The trial was immensely stressful, but she was never tempted to quit her work, or Gambia.
“We have to stand up and prepare the ground for future generations,” Touray said.