The Gambia: Government Censorship of the Campaign to Stop Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)

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1 Jul 1997

On 17 May 1997, the Gambia Telecommunications (GAMTEL) Director of Broadcasting Services announced a new policy on media treatment of the issue of female genital mutilation (FGM) as follows:

The broadcast by Radio Gambia (RG) or Gambia Television (GTV) of any programmes which either seemingly oppose female genital mutilation or tend to portray medical hazard about the practice is forbidden, with immediate effect. So also are news items written from the point of view of combating the practice. GTV and RG broadcasts should always be in support of FGM and no other programmes against the practice should be broadcast. All programmes must therefore be previewed to ensure compliance with this directive. The Manager, Radio Progammes and the Principal Producer, Programmes should bring this to the attention of all producers and programme-makers.

GAMTEL is a state owned company which is responsible for telecommunications in The Gambia and which controls Radio Gambia and Gambia Television. The broadcasts affected by this new policy are the radio and television stations with the largest audiences in The Gambia and the only ones which reach the entire country.

The Gambia Committee on Traditional Practices (GAMCOTRAP), a non-governmental organization which has been campaigning against FGM in The Gambia since 1984, has protested the new policy which requires that state-owned media be used for the promotion of FGM and which bans the promotion of its eradication. In a "Clarion Call" delivered to the President of The Gambia on 27 May 1997 the organization made the following statement:

GAMCOTRAP wishes to take an unequivocal stand on the campaign against female genital mutilation (FGM), that FGM is a violation of women's rights, that it is not a religious injunction. It is a harmful traditional practice that affects the health of women and the girl-child, and therefore the practice should be discontinued.

GAMCOTRAP noted in its statement that The Gambia is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the African Charter on Human and People's Rights of the Organization of African Unity. Each of these international treaties includes a provision requiring governments to take effective measures to abolish harmful traditional practices such as FGM. GAMCOTRAP further noted in its Clarion Call that on 17 March 1997, The Gambia launched a campaign to eradicate FGM, together with other member countries of the World Health Organization (WHO) in which FGM is practiced. The Gambian Secretary of Health, Social Welfare and Women's Affairs delivered the keynote address at the WHO-organized launch of this campaign held in The Gambia.

Female genital mutilation takes different forms in different countries: the partial or total removal of the clitoris (clitoridectomy), the removal of the entire clitoris and the cutting of the labia minora (excision), or in its most extreme form the removal of all external genitalia and the stitching together of the two sides of the vulva, leaving only a very small vaginal opening (infibulation). In The Gambia, it is estimated that 70%-80% of the female population is subjected to female genital mutilation, usually in the form of excision with some incidence of infibulation. FGM is prevalent in the band of African countries which stretches across the center of the continent. It is also found in some Asian countries and among immigrant populations in Western Europe and North America. As recently as the 1940's and 1950's, FGM was used by doctors in England and the United States to combat hysteria, lesbianism, masturbation and other perceived sexual deviance in girls and women.

Women and men who come from cultures which practice FGM are increasingly giving voice to the devastating harm inflicted by FGM, and movements for its eradication are growing. Non- governmental organizations have been working for more than fifteen years in The Gambia to stop the practice of FGM. Internationally, the movement for the eradication of FGM is also growing. In April 1997 WHO, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) jointly appealed to government leaders to support efforts to stop FGM.

It is estimated that more than 100 million girls and women around the world have undergone female genital mutilation. At least 2 million girls every year, 6,000 every day, are at risk of suffering FGM. For those who survive the cutting, which is generally done without anaesthetic, lifelong health consequences may include chronic infection, severe pain during urination, menstruation, sexual intercourse, and childbirth, and psychological trauma. An extreme form of the many traditional practices used around the world to deny women independence and equality, FGM is defended by both men and women in the cultures where it is practiced as a rite of passage and a social prerequisite of marriage. It is used to control women's sexuality by safeguarding virginity and suppressing sexual desire.

What You Can Do: 

Please write to the Managing Director of GAMTEL. Note the harmful effects of FGM and urge him to rescind the directive barring use of Radio Gambia and Gambia Television to combat the practice. Please also write to the President of The Gambia. Urge him to intervene and take immediate action to ensure that broadcast media can be used to inform the public about the harmful effects of FGM and to promote its eradication. Note that The Gambia has an obligation under international law to take measures to eliminate harmful practices against children. Recall the recent WHO initiative against FGM and note the inconsistency of the GAMTEL policy with this important collective African effort, in which The Gambia played a leading role. Appeals can also be addressed to the Gambian Ambassador to your country.

President Yaya A.J.J. Jammeh
President of the Republic of The Gambia
Banjul, The Gambia
Telex: 2240

Mr. Bakary Njie
Managing Director of GAMTEL
Banjul, The Gambia
Fax: 220-226699