“What I know today, if I had known that before, I would never have circumcised any woman,” said Aja Babung Sidibeh, a former circumciser in the provincial town of Janjangbureh in northcentral Gambia.
Sidibeh spent years performing female genital mutilation (FGM) on girls in her community in Gambia. Six years ago, she abandoned this harmful practice and became a staunch activist against the practice.
She was the custodian of the deeply rooted practice that was passed on to her by her lineage.
In the early hours of the morning, young girls will be brought to her home. They sit on a mat outside with their legs stretched together. She will cleanse them and perform rituals to fight off evil spirits as part of initiation rites.
The girls would stay with her until the ‘ngansinbaa’ – circumciser – arrives to cut them.
Sidibeh was a “Murou Mansoo” who took her initiation orders from “ngansinbaa” or “ngaamaro” as they are called in the ‘Bolongookono’ – provincial Gambia.
Two girls fell seriously ill after being cut. Before then Aja Sidibeh had received disturbing narratives of the side effects of female genital mutilation. The worsening condition of the girls became the turning point for her. She went from being a circumciser to a women’s rights defender.
Some community members blamed witchcraft for the sudden illness, but when the girls were taken to a nearby medical facility, health workers determined it was an infection caused by FGM.
The infection was excruciating, but both girls eventually recovered. Some are not as lucky as them.
Fatou Touray is a registered nurse in the northern Gambian city of Essau. She had to perform a countless number of episiotomies – surgical incisions used to enlarge the opening to help deliver a baby.
She has been a nurse for more than 20 years and has seen worse cases, including death at birth for both mother and child.
17 years ago, Touray received a frantic call to report to the hospital. She found a three-year-old girl bleeding to her death. She was circumcised. They brought her to the hospital very late. Her custodians and the ‘ngansinbaa’ were blaming evil spirits for her continuous bleeding.
She died, Touray recalled.
Those that survive are exposed to risks of sexual and reproductive health complications.
When her two girls recovered, Aja Sidibeh gathered all circumcisers in her region and shared her experience with them. She told them to drop the knife.
Today, Ms. Sidibeh is a staunch advocate for ending FGM.
“We know it is part of our culture, but it is not in accordance with Islam, and it is against our rights as women,” she says.
“We have caused lots of suffering to our women. That’s why I told you that what I know today if my grandparents knew that, they would not have circumcised anyone. Ignorance was the problem.”
Many religious leaders, especially clerics from the Supreme Islamic Council with influential leaders like Imam Abdoulie Fatty preached it was permitted by Islam as a cleansing for women.
Born in The Gambia and sent to the United States at 15 for an arranged marriage, Jaha Dukureh was too young to remember her FGM procedure but she has never been able to shake the feeling that something is not quite right.
“I’m not whole. I’m not intact. Something was taken away from me,” she says.
In The Gambia, the prevalence rate for women aged 15-49 remains at 76.3 percent, which means that 3 out of 4 women get cut in their lifetime. She says FGM is a deeply ingrained custom, one that is used to prevent girls from having sex before marriage and to keep them “clean.” And women who do not undergo FGM often are stigmatized and shunned from their communities.
Jaha started Safe Hands for Girls, an advocacy group campaigning against FGM in her native Gambia, joining the likes of Dr. Isatou Touray, who has been canvassing support for the campaign in some of the remotest villages in the small West African country.
Touray [no relations to the nurse Fatou] had been campaigning for more than 30 years until in November 2015, when the country’s former President Yahya Jammeh announced it will ban female genital mutilation.
Jaha was shocked. She was surprised. She never expected this to happen in a million years, literally. Not this soon. But she had been trailing the president for weeks.
“I’m really amazed that the president did this. I didn’t expect this in a million years. I’m just really proud of my country and I’m really, really happy,” she told the Guardian.
The Gambia now has a new government and Dr. Isatou Touray is a senior member of the government. She is the Minister of Trade, Industries, Regional Integration and Employment – a key government department that could be instrumental in the campaign against FGM.
Political activists are campaigning to have many laws passed during Jammeh’s reign repealed but Jaha Dukureh said the FGM law is here to stay.
“The law is not political. It is for all Gambians. It is a Gambian law,” she said. “Because of FGM, many of our girls have been left behind. I hope the new government will do more than what the former administration did, especially on advocacy and the implementation and enforcement of the law.”
FGM practice has been pushed underground after Gambian authorities indicted two women over the death of a two-year-old girl in the country’s Lower River Region.
According to Musu Bakoto Sawo, the Program Director for Think Young Women, there is a need for continuous advocacy against the practice. Prosecution, she says, is not what they seek but educating the people and collaborating with law enforcement to prevent any young girl from being harmed.
For Aja Sidibeh and many campaigners, they will be glad that the Gambia’s new government has progressive thinkers and amongst them is their very own Dr. Isatou Touray. It gives them the hope that the anti-FGM law is not going anywhere and that more will be done to curb the practice.
(Writing by Sam Phatey; Additional Reporting from The Guardian, UNFPA, The Standard, CNN and UN; Editing by Sainey MK Marenah; Photo: UNFPA/Kasandi Mulaa; TYW/Minah Manneh)