Dr. Isatou Touray

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Risking Everything to End Harmful Traditional Practices in The Gambia
Isatou Touray
“A law against FGM is a human rights issue and is necessary and relevant for the protection of women and children.”

Dr. Isatou Touray is the Executive Director of the Gambia Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children (GAMCOTRAP), a national and international leader in the fight against female genital mutilation (FGM). Formed in 1984, GAMCOTRAP is a Gambian women’s rights organization that concentrates much of its effort to safeguard the well-being of girls by ending harmful traditional practices like FGM and child marriage. Since its inception GAMCOTRAP has faced resistance from not only FGM practicing communities in The Gambia but sometimes from the State as well.

On 11October, 2010 Dr. Isatou Touray, and her colleague Amie Bojang-Sissoho were arrested by The Gambian police under claims of allegedly embezzling funds in the sum of 30,000 Euros from a Spanish organization called Yolocamba Solidaridad. They were initially denied bail even though theft is a bailable offense in The Gambia. Following an international outcry, including a letter sent to the President of Gambia by Equality Now they were released on bail on October 20, 2010. Prior to their arrest, an investigation team was set up by President Yaya Jammeh’s office to look into the issue, and found the allegations unfounded. However, upon submission of its findings, the team was dismissed and some of the members discharged from the service of the Gambian Government. A second panel was set up to reinvestigate the matter, but while awaiting the outcome, the two activists were arrested and accused of theft. Following an arduous trial lasting more than two years, on 12 November 2012 they were acquitted of all charges, representing a vindication of the two activists.

In February 2011, Equality Now had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Touray about her work, the case and the risks and challenges faced by grassroots anti-FGM activists.

1. What kinds of changes have you seen in the practice of FGM in The Gambia in your years of working on this issue? Is it declining?

The most significant change in the fight against FGM in The Gambia is that there is a downward trend in the practice of FGM and it is no longer the taboo subject it used to be. In the past communities significantly resisted any attempts to end FGM; however, this resistance has greatly reduced, especially in communities that have benefitted from sensitization regarding FGM. Through engagement with culturally relevant messages, communities are more open to discussing the practice. The advocacy is accepted, community leaders and women are taking leadership to end FGM and communities are slowly abandoning the practice through public declarations.

GAMCOTRAP has succeeded in conducting two major unprecedented public declarations in The Gambia. GAMCOTRAP has also been successful in working with circumcisers to abandon FGM. In the first batch, 18 circumcisers and 63 communities abandoned FGM in 2007, and this increased significantly to 60 circumcisers and 351 communities in 2009. Recently a senior circumciser and her nine colleagues declared their intention to abandon FGM in the Niani District of the Central River Region. This happened after training was conducted with circumcisers, traditional birth attendants, women’s leaders and women of reproductive age. From 2005 to 2006 the prevalence of the practice decreased to 78.3%. Since then the work has significantly accelerated and there is every indication that the prevalence will continue to fall in the next 5 to 10 years as communities are now requesting GAMCOTRAP to organize sensitization activities, and young people are actively involved in raising awareness and spearheading advocacy to end FGM.

However, resistance is still high in some pockets that have not benefitted from any form of training and practicing communities are cutting girls at a younger age – previously girls used to be circumcised at 10 years of age and above and now girls less than 5 years old are being cut.

2. Why does The Gambia still not have a law against FGM? Do you think anti-FGM laws are effective? What can be done to ensure that The Gambia passes an anti-FGM law?

The State and/or politicians are not very comfortable challenging a very old social convention, hence the lack of a law against FGM. Also, the lawmakers do not understand that having a law against FGM is meant to protect the rights of women. Some of the institutions responsible for women are themselves not taking unequivocal positions regarding the issues. Some parliamentarians are more concerned with the security of their positions and thus take up ambivalent stances. The rights of women are being compromised while unprogressive religious leaders continue to mislead the entire debate – that FGM is a religious obligation. GAMCOTRAP is raising the consciousness of communities in this regard and this is leading to a wind of change; people are now calling for a law against the practice. A law against FGM is a human rights issue and is necessary and relevant for the protection of women and children.

A law would be very effective since it would serve both as a deterrent against the practice and as a protection for women and children. It will however be more effective if, prior to the promulgation, the people are consulted and empowered with the relevant information on the effects of FGM. This is why anti-FGM activists and organizations need to be supported in facilitating that process while the State assumes its responsibility to create a law.

The Gambia is a signatory to international and regional human rights bodies including the UN Women’s Convention (CEDAW), the Maputo Protocol, the Convention on the Rights of Children, and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and it needs to harmonize its laws according to their standards. There is a need for continued advocacy with the State and its relevant institutions for a law to be put in place and there are currently plans underway for a consultation with the National Assembly Members who will be provided with a draft of a proposed law against FGM.

3. Have you faced retaliations to your work on FGM? What are the kinds of challenges and risks faced by activists who are working to end this practice?

As a result of GAMCOTRAP’s unequivocal position in calling for State accountability and addressing women and children’s rights, the organization has faced stiff resistance. With sustained advocacy, there is general acceptance at the grassroots level. However, at the institutional level, there is subtle state resistance to the work and to addressing human rights issues.

The current situation of GAMCOTRAP reveals the difficult situation human rights defenders face in their daily jobs. At the same time it shows the vulnerability of activists on the ground fighting to promote women’s human rights and how this vulnerability can be used against them even though theirs is a just cause. Our current circumstance highlights the state of affairs regarding the State and women’s human rights organizations. It also reveals the resistance to efforts made by women’s rights activists and those institutions who are supposed to work closely with NGOs to advance the women’s rights agenda. The human rights community should take note of this hostility toward human rights defenders. The difficult situation still does not stop GAMCOTRAP from continuing its advocacy at the community level.

Also, the unhealthy competition among organizations who profess to be addressing FGM when they do not appear to be doing so weakens the concerted efforts needed to move the agenda forward for the vulnerable groups.

4. What is the current status of your case?

The recent incarceration was a result of false information given to the State by one of our Spanish partners, Yolocamba Solidaridad. The State used this as a pretext to unlawfully incarcerate myself and GAMCOTRAP’s program coordinator Amie Bojang-Sissoho. Recently we were remanded for nine days by the police. This may have been intended to silence us regarding our work locally and globally, considering that GAMCOTRAP is a contributor to the global women’s rights debate through, for instance, our alternative reports to the UN Commission on the Status of Women.

Earlier on, the prosecution brought in circumcisers to testify, but their testimonies were indication enough that the accusations levied against GAMCOTRAP were false. The National Intelligence Agency (NIA) officer who was part of the panel of re-investigators was also cross-examined, but the outcome shows the report they wrote was one-sided and biased against GAMCOTRAP, since it only captured what had been reported by the Spanish, and the counterarguments of GAMCOTRAP were watered down.

The case is still in the courts and recently the Spanish organization has come to face the defense counsel after many attempts to get them to appear in court. Although this is not a State matter, the State seemed to be taking sides with the Spanish at the expense of its own citizens. GAMCOTRAP was not given the opportunity to explain its own side of the story to the President--a privilege that Yolocamba was given. GAMCOTRAP wrote several letters to seek audience with the President but this has yet to be granted.

The Director of Yolocamba came to court on the 26th of January, 2011 but the court could not proceed as her statement was not provided to the defense counsel on time. The case resumed again on the 27th of January but could not proceed once again because the prosecution never raised the issue of a translator for the Spanish, and they decided to bring their own translator to court. The defense stood against that, as it is the mandate of the court to provide a translator and not to allow someone brought in by the plaintiff because the translation could be subjective. It was also raised in court that the statement provided by the Spanish organization was written in English, so why was a translator necessary? The Spanish woman then began speaking in English. Since they failed to follow procedure for the second time, the hearing was adjourned to the 29th of January, 2011 and the Spanish indicated that they would be leaving the country on the 31st of January 2011. The cross examination continued on the 31st January, 1st February and 3rd February 2011. The Yolocamba Director told the court that she did not accuse GAMCOTRAP of theft, she did not report us to the police, she did not take us to court and she did not want to see us in prison. The case was adjourned to 16th February 2011 and our bail was extended once more.

5. What can readers do to help end FGM in The Gambia?

To end FGM in The Gambia will require tremendous efforts, but more importantly efforts that the people can identify with. The need to engage through a culturally relevant approach is a prerequisite towards attaining lasting success and winning the hearts of the practicing communities. This is what GAMCOTRAP is doing through the cluster approach. It is important to focus on three levels:

  • To accelerate grassroots initiatives by local/indigenous organizations who are part of the cultures that practice FGM and therefore can identify with them. This is important in efforts to facilitate acceptability and yield positive outcomes as well as to minimize resistance. FGM is still shrouded in secrecy and people can only open up when they feel they can identify with the advocates. This is why GAMCOTRAP’s grassroots advocacy is yielding tremendous and very effective results. Readers should support local initiatives to eliminate FGM and to promote sexual and reproductive health and the rights of women and children. It is important to provide institutional support to grassroots organizations in order to ensure their continuous existence and ability to fight against harmful traditional practices like FGM.
  • The next level of support is to intensify the advocacy from the international to the local level. States who are parties to international and regional human rights instruments need to be held accountable to ensure the promulgation of laws to ban FGM. There is a call for banning FGM; this call should be supported by all and governments to support the law reform process to protect girls and women from the practice. These efforts will be complimented by grassroots activism and social mobilization efforts. Resources should also be directed towards advocacy for law reform in The Gambia. This will not only ensure a protective environment for women and children in The Gambia but will also serve as a deterrent for neighboring countries like Senegal who bring their children to The Gambia for circumcision because there is no law against FGM here.
  • Finally, there is need for legal aid in the midst of the incarceration of GAMCOTRAP. We are the leading women’s rights organization fighting against FGM in The Gambia. Any effort to bring the organization down as a result of the issues it discusses will lead to tremendous gaps in the fight against FGM and the promotion of women’s rights. GAMCOTRAP seeks support for legal aid and also to create a protective, more enabling working environment for its work to continue smoothly.

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