2024 International Women’s Rights Award with Fatou Baldeh

Gambian women’s rights activist and survivor fighting to end Female Genital Mutilation Fatou Baldeh addresses the 16th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for her remarks.

Full remarks:

Excellencies, Distinguished Guests, Members of the Press, Ladies and Gentlemen, good afternoon to you all. 

I am deeply honoured to be the recipient of the 2024 International Women’s Rights Award, bestowed upon me by the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy. 

I am particularly pleased by this award for two main reasons. Firstly, the award signifies recognition from groups that share the same goal of eradicating human rights abuses in all its forms and manifestations, including those that affect women and girls. Secondly, the recognition comes at a critical time when the world is potentially on the brink of witnessing a major retrogression of women’s rights in my country, The Gambia, where some groups and lawmakers are firmly committed to repealing the law that prohibits Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). The timing of this award could not be more fitting! So thank you for recognizing my work in fighting against FGM and for giving me the opportunity to speak at this august Geneva Summit celebrating our firm commitment to defending human rights and democracy. 

My speech today will mainly focus on the fight to protect the fundamental human rights of women and girls in The Gambia, and by extension the whole world over. Little girls whose parents would eagerly subject them to FGM at a time when they can neither resist nor consent to the cutting of their sensitive body parts, under the pretext of religion and culture. Let me underline at this point that FGM violates the rights of women and girls. By its nature, FGM is a form of gender-based Violence committed on innocent, defenseless infants as young as one week old. 

I was just eight years old when I was subjected to Female Genital Mutilation. I still remember the day when I was taken to my eldest uncle’s house together with at least 10 other young girls from my family under the pretext of going to a party to celebrate us. I had my hair braided and I had a new outfit. There were drums and dancings and I saw most of my aunties and other female relatives. It was exciting… well, so I thought. But this excitement soon turned into a nightmare as we were lined up and I could hear the screams of the other  girls that were forced into the bathroom. I could not see as we were all blindfolded. Suddenly I felt the grip of strong hands grabbing me and I was rushed into a bathroom and pinned down on a dirty floor where my genitals were cut by an old lady. The pain was excruciating. The only medication we had was warm water and salt which we would sit on every morning; this we were told would stop us from getting infections. That was almost as traumatizing as the cutting itself. I can still remember the screaming from the other girls. We were kept in a dark room until we healed, during which we were taught songs with strong messages about what it means to be a good and obedient woman. During this period we were also warned never to repeat what happened or that same old woman will come back and cut us again. 

In The Gambia, where the practice affects close to 75% of women and girls, FGM is mostly carried out by medically untrained aged women from the community, without anesthetics, using the same crude tools such as knives and blades repeatedly without professional sanitization, on infants and girls mutilated on the same occasion. FGM, as the previous speaker highlighted, has profound emotional and physical health effects, including severe bleeding, problems urinating, recurrent infections, childbirth complications and an increased risk of newborn deaths. 

The global figures on FGM are staggering, to say the least. According to World Health Organisation more than 230 million women and girls alive today have been subjected to FGM globally. In 2024 alone, an estimated 4.4 million girls are at risk of FGM

Such is the urgency of ending FGM, that The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 5 sets Target 5.3 to eliminate all harmful traditional practices, including Female Genital Mutilation, by 2030. Our common humanity and the fundamental principles of SDG 5, therefore calls upon all of us to fight for the eradication of this unnecessary and unbeneficial practice, regardless of our gender, where we are from, or our religious and cultural beliefs. 

After decades of advocacy and awareness raising on the harms of FGM, In 2015, a law was passed to ban FGM in The Gambia. The introduction of the law was applauded by anti-FGM activists in The Gambia, and the international community.  

Ironically, that law, which was passed at a time when The Gambia was under a dictatorship, is now under threat of revocation in the new democratic political dispensation, 7 years after authoritarian rule was peacefully ended through the ballot box. The Gambia currently is being hailed globally as a model in rebuilding human rights, democracy and the rule of law. However, Gambian women continue to have their rights rolled back. 

This threat is unjust to Gambian women and girls who contributed significantly to the ousting of one of Africa’s most brutal dictators. We deserve to enjoy our fundamental rights, as women’s rights are human rights.

In August, last year, a discussion was sparked at the National Assembly to repeal the FGM law and legalize FGM again in The Gambia. The move was triggered by a group of men using religion and culture as a pretext, after the first successful prosecution case of FGM since the law was introduced in 2015. These men mobilized resources for their relentless campaign, backed by a group of elected National Assembly Members. Sadly, some medically trained professionals in The Gambia are also advocating for the medicalization of FGM, totally disregarding the ethics of their profession to do no harm without medical benefits. 

The consequential contentions of the supporters of FGM is that it should as a minimum be optional when girls turn 18 years, and that the cutting should be done under medical facilities by healthcare professionals. Others have argued that the practice should be a choice. But these arguments ignore the fact that those who make the choice are not the ones who will be affected by the decision. Rather it is innocent, defenseless infants and young women and girls who will suffer the consequences of that choice. Besides, giving parents the right to take decisions that are proven to be harmful to the health of their children totally erodes the fundamental spirit of law, which is to protect the welfare of citizens, more so in this case infants and little girls.

I have no doubt in my mind that without the intervention of Civil Society Organisations, like Women in Liberation and Leadership, the organization I founded and lead, and other grassroots CSOs, the chances of the bill quietly going through would have been very high! Many of the CSOs in the Gambia  that stood up against the anti-FGM bill, are led by women who are themselves FGM survivors. The bill was voted to be handled by a Special Committee of MPs at the National Assembly, which is tasked to gather evidence on the pros and consequences of FGM and submit a report on their findings, to guide National Assembly Members when the bill is tabled for voting in June 2024. 

Evidently, repealing the FGM law of The Gambia will directly contrive all the international and regional treaties that the country is a signatory to, such as the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Convention on the Rights of Children, and The Maputo Protocol on the rights of women in Africa. It will set a dangerous precedent for the rest of the world, as the first case where a law to protect innocent infants and girls is repealed.

The main arguments of the proponents and supporters of the practice of FGM are based on religion and culture. However, it is well established in the literature that FGM predates Islam, and there is no evidence in the Holy Quran that FGM is recommended for Muslim girls. Needless to say, those men who preach cultural heritage as a reason for continuing the practice are all too eager to take advantage of the benefits of the modern world, which are ever so often totally different from the way previous generations have lived. In other words, they would happily embrace cultural changes that benefit them personally, yet they want to uphold a traditional practice that has scientifically been proven to be harmful to women and has no health benefits

The notion that fighting FGM is some kind of Western Ideology is a baseless propaganda tool propagated to cloud the minds of people who do not have access to data and factual information on the harmful effects of FGM. It has no merit whatsoever. However, they might be taking that path to undermine and disempower us, the activists and the civil society organizations.  

The unfortunate reality is that the practice of FGM is widely supported in sections of our society, particularly in rural communities. Women who have been subjected to FGM themselves should know the dangers associated with it; however, they are often blinded by the patriarchal, societal gender norms and fear invented by the deliberate misinterpretation of their religion. The latter is quite significant in The Gambia, where most of the population are Muslims. However, FGM is also practiced among Christians in some ethnic groups. Consequently, policy makers and politicians are using FGM as a political tool. Breaking the intergenerational cycle of FGM therefore requires interventions at different levels; international, national and at community level. 

Since the bill was tabled last year, Gambian CSOs that are mostly women-led are working around gender equity and equality, have come together to advocate for the FGM law to stay. We have been pleasantly supported by many international organisations, including UN Agencies such as UNICEF, UNFPA and UNDP, as well as members of the Diplomatic Corp in The Gambia and some Human Rights organisations, charities and foundations. It was particularly pleasing to hear the UN Secretary General address attempts to repeal the FGM law in very strong terms in his speech to mark this year’s Women’s Day. Equally pleasing was the statement issued by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation against FGM in commemoration of FGMZTD 2024. By this opportunity to address the Geneva Summit and bestowing upon me the 2024 International Women’s Rights Award, you have also clearly demonstrated your support to the entire anti-FGM campaign in The Gambia and globally.

Whilst we appreciate the support we have been receiving and continue to receive, I would like to emphasize that the FGM campaign groups are actively campaigning in our communities and lobbying National Assembly Members as I speak to you. Our efforts must therefore be intensified. 

The number one priority now is upholding the law that bans FGM. However, even if the law is maintained, enforcing it will remain a challenge. In the long term, the best way to achieve SDG 5, target 5.3 is to shift the mindset of the practicing population through advocacy, dialogue, and education. That is the most assured way to eradicate and sustain the ban on FGM. To maintain the FGM law in The Gambia and by extension achieve the vision to end FGM, there needs to be a concerted effort to bring together human rights groups, civil society, the state institutions, the press, and the international community to support the CSOs on the ground. We need your support, to strengthen capacity and deliver targeted training to all stakeholders in The Gambia, including law makers, the judiciary, law enforcement officials, the press, and of course CSOs. 

The final call on the bill rests with the National Assembly Members who will have to vote for the law to be maintained or repealed, and the President who will need to consent to the bill before it becomes law. There is no doubt in my mind that if we act collectively and swiftly, we can save the FGM law in The Gambia. I called on the international community to join Gambian women and girls and remind the Gambian government of their responsibility to uphold and respect the fundamental rights of women and girls and protect them from FGM. 

Yes, the challenges are huge. But as the late Nelson Mandela once said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” So, on that closing note, I invite you all to support our efforts to maintain the law against FGM in The Gambia.

Finally, I would like to dedicate this award to all those courageous women and men who are fighting tirelessly around the world to end all forms of violence in the world. 

Thank You!

16th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, U.N. Opening, Tuesday, May 14, 2024

 

 

Speakers and Participants

Fatou Baldeh

Gambian women’s rights activist and survivor fighting to end Female Genital Mutilation

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