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Wednesday, April 20, 2011


Since July of 2008 I have been living and working in The Gambia. I have learned a lot about Gambian culture. Over my next few blog entries I aim to explore my knowledge by answering a few questions. However, I want to stress that I am not an expert in any of these topics. I also have no desire to offend anyone or belittle their beliefs or culture. These are simply my thoughts and opinions.

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is still practiced in The Gambia. The operation is done on girls at an early age, though it varies by tribe; Sarahulles perform it as soon as a few weeks after birth, Mandinkas tend to wait till the girl is 5 or 6 years old. A sharp blade is used to shave away the upper foreskin of the vagina and the clitoris. The operation is always performed by women and is surrounded by elaborate customs and rituals.

The beliefs behind FGM, from what I know, are that a circumcised woman will be more faithful to her husband and less wild. Some tribes also see it as a mark of adulthood. Therefore, an uncircumcised woman might still be considered a child or as unclean and wild. I have read that in some other parts of Africa, men believe that circumcised women experience more pleasure during sex than uncircumcised women. A scientific approach, of course, completely refutes this belief. The removal of the clitoris no doubt results in significantly less sexual pleasure for a circumcised woman. Though I have no idea if this reduces a woman’s sexual desires, it is most likely the basis for the belief that circumcision makes women more loyal to their husbands (e.g. if there is no pleasure in sex for women, then they are less likely to seek sex with multiple partners).

Regardless of how it is viewed, FGM, like Islam and polygamy, is well instituted in Gambian culture. I have talked to a female volunteer who attended a female circumcision ceremony and she noted the huge amount of pride that the village women felt for the girls being circumcised. They saw it as a rite of passage, and there was a great deal of singing, dancing, and chanting. However, FGM carries many risks and it deprives a woman of sexual pleasure. If not performed properly, the cutting can lead to infections and further complications that sometimes result in death. Several NGOs in The Gambia, most notably TOSTAN, are working with village women to stop the practice of FGM. I, for one, completely support them.

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