Anti-FGM campaigners say parents can decide for their children, but not harm them

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By Momodou Jarju

Amid growing debate on the proposed women’s amendment bill, opponents of female genital mutilation (FGM) have informed the national assembly joint committee on gender and health that parents have rights to decide for their children, but not at the expense of harming them.  

The anti-FGM campaigners were invited by the aforesaid joint committee last Wednesday to engage with them as part of the consultation stage of the above-mentioned bill which aims to decriminalise the practice of FGM in The Gambia.  

Wuli East lawmaker and member of the joint committee Hon. Suwaibou Touray asked the anti-FGM campaigners about their take on parents who believe that it’s their rights to decide for their children despite being told that the practice is harmful.

The president of female lawyers association (FLAG) Ms. Anna Njie said the Child’s Act puts obligations on the parents or any person who has responsibility over a child to make sure that whatever decision that they are going to make must be for the welfare of the child.

“The Children’s Act has expressly stated that there should be no harmful practices that will affect the child,” she said, adding that these rights are also recognized in the country’s constitution.  

“Imagine you go all the way to the day of your marriage, and you realise that you have been circumcised, and this is not maybe something that you wanted. So somebody has taken that decision, which is not a good decision, and it is affecting your life now.”  

FLAG vice president Yassin Senghore opined that the argument advanced by those parents’ does not hold water because the rights of the child should be considered. She argued that medical personnel have asserted that the practice provides no benefits and causes a lot of harm.

“So why would you say that because I’m a parent, I have a right to make decisions relating to my child, that that parent should be empowered to make decisions that would harm and take away the rights of that child?”

 “It’s like the child is peripheral in the issue, when the child is the main actor because everything that happens affects the child. So shouldn’t we put the child in front?”

Ms. Senghore said there is no right that is absolute and that one’s rights are subject to somebody else’s rights, adding that children have rights as well independent of their parents’.

“So you cannot impose your rights to inflict harm on somebody else. That the constitution doesn’t allow, law doesn’t allow, even human nature should not allow. So if you say, I am a parent, I have the right to make decisions relating to my child. Yes, you do. But you also have a responsibility to make sure that that child comes to no harm,” she said.

For Neneh Cham, President of the Gambia Bar Association, children are not properties that parents can do whatever they want with them.  

“Your child is not your property for you to do whatever you like with, depending on what you believe is good or not good for them. So I think to those parents, we will say you need to look out for the best interest of your child. If you didn’t know, the law is telling you. It’s in the Children’s Act. Anything that is done to or for a child must be in the best interest of the child. That’s the welfare principle,” she said.  

“And I believe that those parents who say that they are not really aware of the consequences… I think every single person waking up in this country should see that video. When I saw it, that is when it changed my life… So let’s just show this video to everybody who’s an adult. I mean, I’m not even sure how safe it is to show it to children, but adults need to see this.” 

Ms. Cham was referring to a short video of an infant being cut that was shown to lawmakers courtesy of GAMCOTRAP. The infant was crying at the top of her lungs.  

The Gambia’s former vice president and executive director of GAMCOTRAP Dr. Isatou Touray said for the last 30 years, they have been working and engaging communities in the country and anywhere they show them the aforesaid short video, nobody would want to take their daughter to FGM.  

“So the women, who have decided to abandon female genital mutilation, see themselves in some of the negative effects of FGM that Dr. Jah was talking about (Dr. Abubacrr Jah is a Gambian urologist and reconstructive surgeon). And even myself as a survivor. And many other women who may not be strong enough to say what is happening. But this is what is happening. Is this what we want for our children? Is this what the Gambia wants for its future generation, because it has health implications?” she explained.