Victory for women's rights in Gambia

Andy Newman

 

Gambian Womens’ rights campaigners have won an important victory in this predominantly Moslem country.

 

In July 2003 the African Union heads of state meeting adopted the cumbersomely titled “Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s rights on the Rights of women in Africa”. Last year the Gambian National Assembly approved the protocol, but with reservations on crucial Articles, 5, 6 , 7  and 14. These were the articles relating to female genital mutilation (FGM), womens’ rights in marriage, divorce and separation, and reproductive rights.

 

Faith Cheruiyot, a lawyer from Nairobi, interviewed women activists in Gambia, about how they overturned the opt outs in just one year of campaigning: “Hannah Forster, ACHRS Executive Director reflected recently: “ We embarked on a long process that involved government officials. We set up a Gender Action team with many organisations to target the Justice and Women’s Affairs Department, the African Commission in Banjul. We wrote many articles in the newspapers, did many TV interviews, planned and implemented protest marches directed at the National Assembly. We split the heavy tasks among our organisations. We were few but worked very hard with the National Assembly Members (NAMS). Their support was very crucial to the passing of the Bill. One of the major activities we carried out was to distribute copies of the Protocol to each NAM, after an initial discovery that the NAMS were really ignorant of most of the laws and different Human Rights Instruments.”

 

Activists also worked with grassroots women, who put pressure on national assembly members, and who challenged Islamic scholar groups and rural men who opposed full ratification.

 

The Gambian national assembly has just ratified the protocol in full, with no opt outs, which means they have now banned FGM, and given women and men legal equality in marriage, and decriminalised abortion.

 

An estimated 50% to 90% of women in the Gambia have undergone Female Genital Mutilation. Many citizens think that this practice is consistent with the Islamic faith and preserves tradition and certain beliefs like increasing the chances of marriage-ability for girls. Many are also oblivious of the health and reproductive risks involved in continuing with FGM.  The National assembly has made a good start by banning FGM, but now the law must be enforced, and that means providing financial support for the NGOs educating people against FGM, and also enforcing punishment for those continuing with the practice.

 

Ratification of Articles 6 and 7 are also significant, because these provide a framework in civil law protecting women's rights in marriage. Currently in Gambia the majority of the marriages are performed under Islamic law. According to a recent survey, 66% of women respondents disclosed that they were married under 17 years. A further 27% married while under 15 years old. Arranged, forced marriages and child betrothal are common practice in the Gambia. The law now states that men and women shall be regarded as equal partners in marriage and the minimum age for marriage should be 18 years.

 

Articles 6 & 7 also provide for legal equality in divorce, whereas previously divorce was covered only by Sharia law. Whereby women would received a much lower proportion of assets distributed through marriage than the males. Even in the few cases that went to court women would typically only receive their removal expenses, maintenance allowances for three months and a token amount for the maintenance of the children.

 

Given that Gambia is  Moslem country, and that the national Assembly refused to ratify the protocol only a year ago, the campaigning pressure from Women's organizations has secured a remarkable victory in achieving steps towards legal equality. It challenges the concept in the west of Africans as powerless victims, and also shows that even in Islamic countries women's rights can be promoted. Ensuring that the law is enforced will be a major struggle, but women are in a far stronger position to wage that struggle than they were before.

 

 

 

June 2006

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