The fight against female genital mutilation
In November 2015 President Yahya Jammeh of Gambia announced his intention to outlaw the ancient practice of female genital mutilation and in December the government passed a bill criminalising the act.
Female genital mutilation (FGM) is the practice of cutting and/or removing parts of a women’s vagina for non-medical, often cultural, ethnic, or religious reasons. The small west African country of The Gambia has a high prevalence of FGM with some communities cutting up to 97% of their young girls. The majority of Gambians are Sunni Muslim and there has been an ongoing debate in the country’s media about the compatibility of FGM with Islam. The proponents of FGM are often conservative religious leaders and village elders who are challenged with an increasingly interconnected, Internet-savvy generation of young Gambians who are absorbing liberal ideas, either online or from the worldwide Gambian diaspora, and are questioning the legitimacy of the ancient practice. One such young Gambian-American, Jaha Dukureh, 26, has been campaigning to end FGM since the birth of her first daughter. Her campaigning has been instrumental in keeping the issue in the spotlight, regularly meeting with affected communities, organising events for journalists covering the story, and lobbying government officials.
I have been photographing the women affected by FGM in the UK and West Africa for nearly two years. Jaha is one of the most charismatic campaigners that I have been lucky enough to work with and her work in The Gambia has been very effective. She was the victim of the most severe form of FGM when she was a young girl, and has been vocally outspoken against it since she was a child. Since having her own daughter she has been campaigning in the US and Gambia for greater recognition of the practice.
Still, no one thought that with an election to fight in 2016 the Gambian president would make any strong commitments to banning FGM, there was just too much support for the practice in rural parts of the country. There was an incredible atmosphere in the tiny nation when the announcement came. Activists had been working towards this for years, for some cases their whole lives. I was privileged to be there to photograph the moment. But there was also a strong sense that, really, the work had now just begun. Announcing a law is one thing, implementing it is quite another. There is a tremendous amount still to be done to teach the terrible effects on young women that the practice has to the communities that still carry it out. But there exists are huge number of people willing to take that work on, and they have hope on their side.
Jaha Dukureh, 26, is an FGM survivor, campaigner and mother. Born in Gambissara, she was sent to America at 14. She has returned to confront the women of Gambissara on the issue of FGM, and to meet the woman who cut her.
Makumba Jankha is chief circumciser for Gambissara and cut Jaha’s sister who died of complications from the procedure. The same fate befell Makumba’s daughter, whom she cut herself. Still, she says she will never stop cutting girls, demonstrating how deeply ingrained FGM is in the conservative communities of The Gambia.
Women purchase cinema tickets to watch a Gambian film highlighting the harmful effects of FGM on young women and girls. Among the younger generation of Gambians, growing up with the Internet and liberal ideologies, FGM’s necessity is increasingly being called into question in newspapers, online, and in cinema.
Teenage girls pose for a selfie at the premiere of Hand of Fate, a film that tackles the sensitive issue of FGM in rural parts of the country directed by young Gambian film maker Ibrahim Ceesay.
Imam Fatty, a prominent religious figure in The Gambia and formerly the president’s Imam, hits the front page of The Standard declaring that FGM ‘must stay’. Four days later President Yahya Jammeh announced his decision to outlaw FGM.
Two elderly Serehule women, listening to the debate outside, peer through the sun screen of a building opposite the Gambissara mosque.
Journalist Sise Sawaneh, left, talks with an elder, right, from the local women’s council about the harmful effects of FGM. These women of the village defend the practice by claiming religious obligation and cultural tradition.
Around 90% of the population of The Gambia is Sunni Muslim, with most of the remainder belonging to various Christian sects, with smaller communities of Shiites from Lebanon and the Arabian Peninsula, as well as Indian Muslims and Hindus.
Jaha Dukureh, right, explains to two circumcisers why she is campaigning to ban FGM in Gambia. The woman in white, centre, performed FGM on Jaha as a small child. She has been campaigning for the government of The Gambia to criminalize the practice since the birth of her daughter.
A young Serehule girl looks towards the group of visitors who have just arrived in her hometown.
A group of Serehule schoolgirls gather outside the local mosque. Gambissara, in far south east of Gambia, is the heartland of the Serehule tribe, one of the most conservative communities in the country with 97% of their women cut.
Children pour on to the streets as St Therese’s Lower Basic School’s day comes to an end. More than half of the country, approximately 60%, is aged between 15-25. 76% of women in Gambia are survivors of FGM.
A sticker calling to ‘Stop Violence Against Women and Girls’ in an office at the GRTS (Gambia Radio and Television Services) main building.
Jaha Dukureh is petitioning the government to allow her to build a women’s clinic that can treat women suffering from the effects of, or running from the threat of, FGM. Here she is waiting to be admitted to the Minister of Land’s office to discuss her proposal.
In the foreground, radio presenter Lansana Toronka hosts his weekly health program on Senn FM. Lansana also hosts the Youth Forum, and the station’s sports show. He makes FGM a regular topic of discussion on his slots.
Louis is a documentary photographer and cameraman who works in the UK and internationally covering human rights and development, particularly in West Africa and India. His recent coverage of the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone was published widely in the British press and abroad, for which he was awarded a medal of service from the UK’s Ministry of Defence. He studied at the London College of Communication from 2009 to 2012 where he received a First Class BA (Hons) in Photojournalism. Born on the 1st October 1987 in South England, he is currently based in London where he continues to pursue long-term, personal projects.