Cracking the hard nut of patriarchy in Gambia: how feminist are winning the ground

Mustapha K Darboe

Many Gambian analysts and women rights activists believe the country is far from ending its culture of male dominance in all spheres of life despite having five women in parliament, woman vice president and 3 female ministers.

Dr Isatou Touray

Dr Isatou Touray

“I don’t believe in tokenism,” Dr Isatou Touray, a leading women rights activist in the country told the torchongambia, referring to the Government.

“If we talk about women’s rights, you can’t tell us that we have woman vice president, female ministers and so on. We are talking about policies that will actually address inequality in the country in terms of numbers, power and decision-making processes. This is where the gender gap lies. We also need practical changes in the area of reproductive health of women.”

She added: “The Gambia has ratified the United Nations convention on the Committee on Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and other human rights protocol to advance the human rights of women and also, internally, put some laws in place to address the issues affecting women [but] it should now move to what we call formal equality. What we were having is informal equality because virtually everything is just in the law.”

Frustrations with regards to the advancements of the rights of women in The Gambia are high but the gains are equally visible and Dr. Touray is more optimistic today than ever.

“I have been advocating for the protection of the rights of women in this country for the past three decades and I can tell you that we have made a huge progress,” she said.

“People are listening and women, from the advocacy works we are doing, are empowered today than ever.”

The Gambia is a very conservative, male-dominated society with a higher rate of illiteracy and until now, having audience to talk about abandoning female genital mutilation, wife battering, and other menaces affecting the progress of women has been difficult.

Research says FGM still affects about 70% of women in The Gambia and while the activists might have achieved less result in getting people to abandon the practice, in short-term, but they have succeeded in making it a topic of national discourse, breaking the taboo that hangs over talking about women’s sexuality in the country.

“The people are ready. What they are waiting for is the law to ban FGM,” Dr Touray said.

On July 27, CEDAW weigh in to their defense. The 23-member expert committee of the United Nations has asked Gambia to ban FGM, stop women trafficking and sexual exploitation of women, among others.

Dr Touray's colleague, Amie Bojang

Dr Touray’s colleague, Amie Bojang

The committee recommended that, “The Gambia adopts legal provisions explicitly prohibiting harmful practices such as polygamy, child marriages, female genital mutilation, levirate, and unequal inheritance rights for women, provide for adequate sanctions and ensure the effective implementation of these provisions.”

Though many analysts said the CEDAW call to ban FGM is unlikely to be honoured  by the Gambian politicians and decisions makers given the popularity of the practice among the electorates, but it ignited debate.

“It is time for women to seize their rights. Issues like political participation, being given leadership positions and ending violence against women are basic fundamental human rights that must be given to them,” Dr Boro Susso, gender specialist and lecturer at the Stratford College of Management told the torchongambia.

Boro however said The Gambia has made some considerable progress in the protection of women’s rights but argued that much of what the Government has promised to do in their protection turns out to be a “mere political rhetoric”.

Young joins the movement

The feminist movement that started with a group of few women leaders like Dr Isatou Touray, Amie Bojang and others, now wears an appealing face to young girls across the country.

Jaha Dukureh

Jaha Dukureh

Though stereotypes against women’s rights activists are still widespread but recent times have seen larger number of non-governmental organizations standing for the rights of women in the country.

The prominent ones are perhaps the Safe Hands for Girls founded by Jaha Dukureh, a Gambisara-born anti-FGM activist based in US and Girls’ Agenda founded by Matida Daffeh.

In an interview with the torchongambia at the American Corner Library along the Kairaba Avenue, Matida of Girls’ Agenda has said made a call for the criminalisation of the practices of female genital mutilation and polygamy in the country.

Matida Daffeh said polygamous marriages though considered a religious injunction, was making life feel like hell for Gambian men because of the many challenges that are associated with it.

“Polygamy is a religious obligation but there is an “if” to it. Meaning there are conditions attached to it and many [Gambian] men are not able to fulfil those conditions. I don’t believe in it but I am not stopping anybody from doing it. But so long as we are taking it to be a religious obligation, let’s not also forget about the conditions. If the Government sends a bill to the National Assembly outlawing FGM, I would also want polygamy to be outlawed,” she said.

“In this 21st century, young people need to opt for monogamy. It is better for us all. Polygamy is just not practically possible and at individual level, I am not in support of it. In fact, it makes life feel like hell for men. So why go for [something that] will affect you? Someone told me that most African men want to go for cheap religious rites. In Saudi Arabia, before a man can marry, he will have to have a compound and a standard living condition. So [men should] do things that are more important.”

Matida said she finds it incomprehensible that political leaders in the country are dragging their feet from banning the FGM on the justification that it have hurt the religious and cultural feelings of the people.

She said: “The irony is the claim that FGM is popular among the people and if the politicians ban it, they would be punished at the polls.  I find that [argument] very incomprehensible. If you are serving the people, you should serve them in their best interest. FGM affects the fundamental human rights of a woman because it affects the sexual reproductive health of women.

The journey is likely to be long but what is certain is that the women movements are gaining ground in that they have successfully won followers and have made what was a non-issue, as far as male patriarchs are concern, to a national issue.

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