FGM a Dark Reality for Millions of Girls and Women in The Gambia and Sierra Leone

The Gambia, often referred to as the “Smiling Coast of Africa”, is celebrated for its peaceful people. Whether you are straddling the streets of Banjul or navigating through the vast river Gambia with its breathtaking views, Gambia’s beauty and tranquillity are inescapable. You are met with smiles and warm, welcoming hands.

However, beneath the image of tranquillity lies the troubling practice that the majority of girls and young women face.  Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a deeply entrenched practice here. Studies reveal that the prevalence of FGM among women and girls aged 15-49 in The Gambia is an estimated 75 per cent. While they may not share a border or be closer,  FGM is also prevalent in Sierra Leone, with the Sierra Leone Demographic and Health Survey 2019 estimating that 83 per cent of women aged 15-49 have undergone FGM, with 71 per cent mutilated before the age of 15. 

Laila, a survivor of FGM from Gambia, recounts her story;

“I was ten years old when I was taken to get cut. I am from the Fula tribe, and they believe in the practice of FGM. I was very stubborn as a child. As a result, the women in my family believed I would become more docile and obedient if I underwent this practice. The day that I was taken was just like any other day.

I and the other girls who were taken with me were not told what was going to happen to us. They only told us that we were going to a place where we would be given gifts. As children, we did not find this suspicious as the people who promised us gifts were female family members. We trusted them, and we happily and willingly went with them.

At this time, I lived in Kerr Amadou, a small village in The Gambia. We were taken to the forest, where I saw many other little girls. We were told to form a line and were taken one by one to a secluded and hidden spot in the forest. Several other women were waiting to help the cutter perform the act. Some of the women were there to hold my legs open, some to hold me still and one to do the cutting. We were not given any sort of numbing medication or anaesthesia. I also believe we were all cut using the same blade. Once we were all cut, we were taken back to the village, where we were supposed to heal for two weeks. During this time, they all boiled herbs in a tub and then had us sit in it.

The wound was not dressed, and sometimes, we would scratch ourselves so much that we would re-open our wounds. I was cut and sealed. We were deemed healed at the end of the two weeks, and a big celebration was done for us. We had to learn a song which we also had to dance to. Failure to do this successfully meant we would get a beating. Because of my experience with FGM, I face many complications and hardships in my adult life.”

Why is FGM still upheld?

In The Gambia and Sierra Leone, the persistence of FGM is a consequence of the social-cultural and patriarchal setting, where the autonomy and rights of women and girls to choose what happens to their bodies are neither respected nor acknowledged. Women and girls are subjected to numerous false narratives and manipulated into patriarchy by the society that perpetuates this practice. They are told that uncut women are “unclean” and “promiscuous”. The patriarchy perpetuates these lies to maintain control over women by continuing this practice that harms and infringes on women’s fundamental rights to make decisions about their own bodies and sexual and reproductive health.

Furthermore, in Sierra Leone, FGM is deemed a cultural practice that has been celebrated since the beginning of time. At some point in time, FGM became a practice incorporated into the Bondo society, which is a coming-of-age space where girls were taught the arts of womanhood and the gender roles that existed at that time. Nowadays, this harmful borrowed practice rooted in restraining female sexuality has taken centre stage in society. Babies and girls between 1-11 who are yet to reach their coming of age are still cut. The only justification given for this action by some is that it is a culture.


How FGM affects girls and women’s lives

The practice of FGM has been linked to various health consequences, including immediate complications such as severe pain and infections to long-term complications such as urinary, menstrual, psychological, vaginal and sexual problems. Despite these, religious misconceptions and cultural justifications continue to fuel the practice.

While there is growing condemnation from Islamic and Christian leaders in Sierra Leone, influential religious figures in The Gambia continue to advocate for FGM, citing religious beliefs that contradict the stance of many other religious leaders. Individuals’ activities and organisations are tirelessly working to end the practice in both countries. Massah, a feminist and survivor of FGM, explains how she struggles with her trauma as she supports the work to end FGM in her country:

“Discussions about FGM can be traumatic, even terrifying. But the sad reality is that many of us activists have to mask our fears and trauma in the hope of change. I recall a colleague who, when preparing to speak at Women Deliver 2023 alongside the UN and other activists, experienced a mental breakdown. Recalling our conversation, her pain, and anger, I had to be strong for her while reliving my trauma in the process.

When I published my first FGM blog and shared it with our district group, I faced significant backlash, including threats of violence upon my return to our village. While this was a mere social media jab, there have been instances, like the assault on a journalist leading to her untimely death, where speaking out had severe consequences. Other women opposing the practice in their communities have been forcibly cut, expelled, or fined. Nevertheless, our determination to end this harmful practice persists.

Other instances include the different meetings where brave women and men lead the fight. Hearing their countless experiences of being attacked by those who staunchly believe FGM is a cultural norm. They’ve had to run, lie, and often cry. Dedication is crucial in ending this practice, especially when societal pressure insists it’s part of our culture.”

The Gambia took a significant step in 2015 by passing the Women’s Amendment Act, criminalising FGM. This marked a hard-fought victory after over three decades of relentless advocacy against this deeply entrenched tradition. It was seen as a hopeful sign that this practice, which has inflicted immeasurable suffering on women and girls, would soon be eradicated, and those perpetrating it would finally be held accountable. However, the law’s enactment did not result in the end of FGM. Girls continued to be subjected to this harmful practice, and advocacy for the implementation of the law on FGM continued.

Recently, two women were convicted for practising FGM in The Gambia, which sparked a national conversation about FGM. This incident ignited discussions and led to some members of the National Assembly proposing the repeal of the law criminalising FGM and, thus, decriminalising FGM in The Gambia. After years of relentless advocacy, the progress made in this battle now faces the threat of being undone.

The mere possibility of decriminalising FGM would embolden those who have practised it secretly and those who may have stopped, embarking on a regressive path that would undo the strides made by activists and other stakeholders. The stakes are high. If this law is repealed, it would not only be a devastating setback for women’s rights but also a grave injustice to countless women and girls who have suffered the consequences of FGM.

On the other hand, activists and lawyers in Sierra Leone are still struggling to get a law passed against FGM. Currently, there are two legal cases against the government of Sierra Leone, one in the ECOWAS court and another in the High Court of Sierra Leone. Like The Gambia, FGM will persist even after a law has been passed. Nonetheless, it is a step and one of the crucial ways towards ending the practice and the violence against women. Putting a law against the practice will serve as a beacon of hope and empower activists and organisations to accelerate actions towards ending the practice in the region.

Feature photo by UNICEF 


Massah Esther Nyally Bockarie is a feminist writer, youth champion, and social entrepreneur.  She is currently a Programmes Coordinator and Social Media Manager at Purposeful and the Co-Founder of Easy Learning Services. She writes on feminism, youth development, climate change, etc.


Mariama EF Jarju is a feminist and advocates against FGM and SGBV. Mariama holds a postgraduate certificate in Gender and Development and is currently working with Women in Liberation and Leadership (WILL) as a Finance Officer. She is involved in advocacy and promoting the rights of women and girls.  She has supported survivors in the truth-telling and body-mapping exercises.


Mary Mam Degen Fye is a legal practitioner and women’s rights activist based in The Gambia. Mary has played a pivotal role in advocating for women’s rights, focusing on combating harmful traditional practices, taking a strong stance against female genital mutilation. Mary currently advocates for women’s access to justice through the Female Lawyers Association The Gambia.


This story is part of a series in collaboration with the Yemoja Feminista Fellowship by CHEVS, a queer feminist organisation dedicated to advancing social justice and strengthening LGBTQI+ movements across West Africa. The series features insightful analyses, and fervent calls to action from young feminists addressing issues across gender, culture, and human rights in West Africa.  The stories offer personal viewpoints on the struggles and victories of feminist activism in the region and the critiques of systemic injustices. The authors prompt us to face uncomfortable realities, question entrenched norms, and imagine a future where all people are free to live authentically and thrive.

Amidst growing complexities, regressive attitudes and laws targeting LGBTQIA+ rights, attacks on sexual and reproductive health rights by anti-gender networks, and the enduring impact of colonial legacies and harmful cultural practices, storytelling remains a vital tool. It challenges stereotypes, centers marginalized and minoritized voices, advocates for healing justice and collective care. In stories we honor the legacy of African feminisms and the tireless work to dismantle intersecting oppressive systems and create a vision of the future grounded in equity, justice, and love. – Rosebell Kagumire, Editor, African Feminism. 


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.