Who Will Defend the Defenders? Gambian Activists Face Smear Campaign

Who Will Defend the Defenders? Gambian Activists Face Smear Campaign October 26, 2010

Dr. Isatou Touray and Amie Bojang Sissoho are two prominent women’s human rights defenders in the Gambia. They are the executive director and program coordinator of the Gambia Committee for Traditional Practices (GAMCOTRAP), which has been active in fighting for the promotion of gender rights, mainly fighting against the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM).

Recently, both women were arrested and imprisoned by the Gambian government. They were recently released on bail and stand trial soon. Arrested on bogus charges of embezzlement, their arrest represents the contentious debate surrounding FGM and the Gambian government’s animosity towards human rights defenders.

GAMCOTRAP has been accused of misappropriating 30,000 euros from another NGO in Spain called Yolocamba Solidaridad. A panel organized by the government has been investigating the matter, thus leading to their prosecution. A conflict between two NGOs is not usually the place for a government to step in. Even the leader of Yolocamba has called for their release, stating that the problem is administrative, rather than criminal. While this issue has received a great deal of attention from international organizations, I have yet to see it be covered in the mainstream media.

While some international organizations, such as the United Nations, have recently paid lip service to the criminalization of FGM, supporting bottom-up efforts is more vital than relying on top-down efforts. GAMCOTRAP’s work has been successful in that it has led over 100 circumcisers to publicly drop their knives and abandon the practice. Dr. Touray has been internationally recognized for her work against FGM and for protecting the rights of women.

Both Dr. Touray and Ms. Bojang-Sissoho are active networkers for Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML), and fight to advocate for women in the context of Islam. The Gambian government has been open about its position on FGM: in 1999, the president publicly stated that he would not guarantee the safety of activists that combat it. Furthermore, the presidential office has a reputation of actually threatening human rights defenders and their collaborators as recently as last year.

The attention of an international audience is significant for a number of reasons. First and foremost, Dr. Touray and Ms. Bojang-Sissoho may be free on bail, but the fraudulent embezzlement campaign against them still remains. To see women who have dedicated their lives to capacity building and increasing the rights of women treated like common criminals is alarming. It is necessary to have them tried by an impartial court, but a government that actively fights against human rights efforts cannot secure this. The very fact that the Gambian government is treating an administrative conflict as a serious offense is indicative of a desire to silence GAMCOTRAP with whatever possible excuse.

It is also very important for members of the international Muslim community to show their support for Dr. Touray and Ms. Bojang-Sissoho. About 90% of the Gambia’s population is Muslim, and religion plays a complicated role in justifying the practice of FGM. While it may not be the entire reason, the Muslim community should stand for the work of GAMCOTRAP and against FGM. Rather than simply distancing ourselves from the practice, it is time for members of the Muslim community to take a firm stand on this issue.

I wrote earlier about women trying to change things within Islamic nations with little recognition. While these women are a part of an active grassroots effort to alter harmful practices and promote gender equality, I am afraid that the way in which this story might be covered would not show the effectiveness of their work. It might be easy to turn this story into another tale of the nightmares of FGM, and how helpless African women are in the process.

I want more media outlets to cover this story because they should draw attention to grassroots efforts to fight FGM, and the lack of support that anti-FGM activists may have within their nations. But I am tired of hearing about women in the developing world being portrayed as a homogenized group, waiting to be saved from distress. International outlets should focus on this story, publicizing the brave work of these women and helping to keep them safe enough to continue their work.

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