Stakeholders debate age of consent for FGM at assembly consultative meeting

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By Momodou Jarju

Photo: Stakeholders against the proposition of consent for FGM practice. © Tijan Bojang from GAMCOTRAP.

Age of consent is one of the most contested matters in the ongoing debate on female genital mutilation (FGM) in The Gambia. Stakeholders who appeared before the national assembly joint committee of health and gender Wednesday deliberated on the matter in response to a question raised by the member for Old Yundum constituency, Hon. Abdoulie Ceesay.

The stakeholders included officials from the Female Lawyers Association-The Gambia (FLAG), Gambia Bar Association and The Gambia Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children (GAMCOTRAP).

Lawmaker Ceesay asked the stakeholders to weigh in on the position of people who sit on the fence, opining that FGM ought to be an issue of consent for the girl child, during a consultative meeting of the Women’s (Amendment) Bill which seeks to lift the ban on the practice.

 “In other words, somebody has to be above 18 years to decide for herself to be cut,” he added.

The president of the Gambia Bar Association Ms. Neneh Cham said consent cannot legalise what is criminal.

“If you stab me, you cannot say that I asked you to stab me. It’s against the law. So whatever age one is, if that act is against the law, you cannot do it, no matter how old you are,” she said. 

Loubna Farage, a member of FLAG, brought up the worldwide debate on euthanasia (which is the discussion about whether people should be given the right to kill themselves or for that to be performed on them, even in a medical environment) likening it to the age of consent debate about FGM in the country.

“But is that good? Is that what Allah (God) has prescribed? I mean, it’s a harmful practice. Nobody will encourage that you should kill yourself, from our jurisdictions, at least. I think in Gambia, nobody will support that. But you’re above 18. Why are we stopping it? So, consent is not, again, in vacuum.

“And I’ve heard everyone speaking about the best interest of the child, etc. We all know that. And I want to hear from those comments from the National Assembly who are supporting this. And why do they support it? Because if there’s one out of 30 cases, it has caused harm, I think that we should already say no because we cannot guarantee the safety. We cannot guarantee that they can nip the top,” she said.

The former president of Gambia Bar Association further said age of consent for FGM shouldn’t be encouraged and/or debated.

“Because as parents, sometimes you have kids in university, can they make certain decisions for themselves? I know decisions I made at 21. Some of them I wish I didn’t make when I turned 40. I realized that was a bad decision. (She laughed, and a couple of others laughed too) And some are irreversible,” she said.

According to her, she is one of the proponents who doesn’t believe even 18-year-olds can give consent.

“Is it 21? Where do we stop? Is it 25? Is it 30?” she quizzed, adding that the practice has been proven to be harmful and has no benefit. Thus, she said, consent shouldn’t be on the table of discussion.  

Gambian consultant urologist and reconstructive surgeon Dr. Abubacrr Jah said consent is something they deal with a lot in the medical field. He has also been working with GAMCOTRAP for over a decade.

He gave his perspective on the matter thus; “For instance, somebody comes to me and says, look, doctor, I don’t want my hand, and his hand is functional. Cut it for me. If I cut it, I am done. By the law, by the medical practice, they will remove my license. But if he goes himself and cuts it, it’s his hand, he can cut it himself, but anybody else cuts it, they are not following the law. 

“So therefore, consent is something that we should look at very carefully. So even if you are 20 and you want something to be done that is harmful to you, you cannot get anybody else to do it, and a medical person cannot do it for you. And that is why the debate on euthanasia is going on.”