ON THE BANKS of the winding River Gambia, near the bustling market town of Basse Santa Su, clay is hauled from the muddy banks, loaded onto donkey carts and delivered to a nearby village called Kundam Manfatty.
The rainy season is imminent in The Gambia, taunting the thirst of the land and its people. Late in the day, the sun, exhausted, drops below the horizon and children gather to play football on a dusty field by the village.
In the yard of her modest compound, Sira Janko and her co-worker, Fatou Jatter, set to work, sifting pebbles from the river sand and mixing it then with water and native grass.
“Before I was only able to make pottery on the side; one or two pots at a time.” Sira says, thinking back to her previous life and role as the village circumciser. “But now I’m able to make more than 10 at a time,” she continues, her hands working the clay with strength and industry.
Sira is one of hundreds of women who have made the life-changing decision to abandon the practice of female circumcision. It is a decision that does not come lightly but exists as part of a collective movement that is transforming the country and forging a new future for women in The Gambia.
Source: Alice McDowell/Vimeo
Video produced with the support of Galway, UNESCO City of Film.
As the smallest country on mainland Africa, The Gambia is forged by a winding river, which runs like a backbone through its lean body. Following the course of the river as it ebbs and flows towards the Atlantic Ocean, a quiet yet powerful movement to protect and nurture female health and sexuality is unfolding.
Female circumcision, or Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) as defined by the World Health Organisation, UNICEF and UNFPA, affects 78% of girls and women in The Gambia. The practice, which varies in degree from tribe to tribe, is usually experienced by girls during adolescence as part of a coming-of-age ritual; a celebration of womanhood.
Though widely regarded as a religious obligation in The Gambia, the practice pre-dates the arrival of Islam and Christianity, and is etched into the cultural and social identity of the nation.
In light of new knowledge about the serious immediate and long-term health consequences that circumcision inflicts upon women and girls, a home-grown response has emerged to bring an end to the practice. Established in 1984, The Gambia Committee on Traditional Practices (GAMCOTRAP) has been moving across the country, training and sensitising communities about the harmful and discriminatory nature of traditional practices such as FGM.
Dr Isatou Touray, who founded GAMCOTRAP, explained its importance:
FGM has been proven beyond doubts to be a harmful cultural practice that affects the sexual and reproductive health of girls and women. FGM violates the rights of women and children and affects the bodily dignity and integrity of the person affected.
Working with women, men, children, circumcisers, village chiefs, politicians and religious leaders, GAMCOTRAP assesses the practice through many lenses. Framing their workshops around universal human rights, health, religion, tradition and economic sustainability, their work aims to empower entire communities to abandon the practice, a decision that has come to be known as ‘dropping the knife’.
An essential element in GAMCOTRAP’s work is their alternative employment opportunity programme. Female circumcision is traditionally carried out by women that have inherited the role and responsibility within their respective communities. Many of them rely on it as their main source of income to support themselves and their families.
The alternative employment opportunity programme is a sustainable livelihood strategy and support scheme, providing training and a small grant of 6000 Dalasi (around €140) for ex-circumcisers to develop a new small-scale business, which they can manage independently within their community.
After the training and knowledge she gained, Sira Janko was able to stop alongside her community and is grateful for her new freedom and peace of mind. When she was cutting, Sira was never convinced that what she was doing was right; she was always in two minds. She would lie awake at night wondering “…what I did, will it be successful or not?”.
But now, Sira is at peace during the night.
To me, the river is like freedom. Because the river freely flows and I am free.
The nine women presented here are ex-circumcisers and recipients of the AEO grant and support scheme. Each woman has been creative and entrepreneurial in their approach, forging new career paths that draw on both modern technology as well as elements of nature, custom, tradition and the omnipresent river.