The case of two African women seeking asylum in Britain has highlighted the common practice of female genital mutilation in The Gambia. For religious and cultural reasons, many communities in this small West African country continue to insist on girl’s being cut before they reach puberty. The practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) can vary in its severity, but girls are traditionally considered ‘unclean’ or unfit for marriage without undergoing some form of genital cutting.
Two women from The Gambia have applied to remain in the UK because of the practice. One is a 23 year-old mother who doesn’t want her daughter to be scarred for the rest of her life, as she has been. Speaking to a reporter for the BBC’s Newsnight programme, Fatima explained that she was cut at the age of ten and described the experience as “even more painful than giving birth” and something “you have to live with for the rest of your life”. Because the head of her family is a local imam, Fatima knows the same fate awaits her daughter if she returns home.
Female genital mutilation is illegal in the UK and considered a form of child abuse. Nevertheless, Fatima’s asylum application has been rejected. A spokesperson for the Home Office told the BBC that the UK government supports organisations which work to combat FGM, including a UN-backed programme which has been in operation in The Gambia since 2009.
Campaigning against FGM in The Gambia
One non-governmental organisation campaigning against FGM in The Gambia is Gamcotrap. The organisation speaks to local communities and helps to raise awareness about the dangers of FGM. These include possible death through loss of blood and infection and a higher mortality risk for women during childbirth. Through its work, Gamcotrap says it has been successful in persuading around a third of communities in The Gambia to end the practice. But lack of resources means it has yet to run workshops and campaigns in many parts of the country.
Meanwhile, the other Gambian woman seeking asylum in the UK has also had her application rejected. The women in Maimouna’s family have always been circumcisers and now she is expected to carry on this role in her community. Gamcotrap provides grants to traditional cutters so that they can set themselves up in another business. However, Maimouna says she will be ostracised if she doesn’t continue her family’s trade, which she learnt at the age of 16. But having watched as her own five-year-old daughter was cut, she has vowed not to take on the role. When she’s sent back to The Gambia, Maimouna therefore has little hope for her future and simply says “I will not be part of the society”.