Thursday, February 7, 2013

'I have realised that my voice is my power'

Amie Bojang-Sissoho
Amie Bojang-Sissoho, an anti-FGM activist hassaid she has realised that her voice is herpower.
"I just found myself getting more involved without fear or regrets" she told The Daily New's Binta A Bah in an exclusive interview.

DNS:What challenges did you encounter when you started advocating for women’s rights in relations to: health, particularly for a woman from a deep rooted culture?

Amie:Ignorance and the taboo of silence are the main challenges. This so because they lead to resistance. The challenges were faced at work because it is not merely women’s health but specifically talking about sexuality issues, which are shrouded in secrecy and most people, are shy to talk about sexual problems. For some people even if they go to health workers, they find it difficult to say they are infected with sexually transmitted infection. Society perceives talking about sexuality as dirty, and disrespectful.
As someone from the culture that practices FGM, my extended family members, aunts in particular were not happy that I was part of the advocacy to stop FGM because my grandmother was deeply involved and I can recall our garden (kangkangba) being used as a ‘juju’. I try to educate them on the facts and to differentiate the facts forom the myths. Also knowing that my father (Late Alhagie Hatab Bojang) was one of the most respected Islamic Scholars in the Gambia during his lifetime, I made sure I did my research and I understood that the practice is not a religious obligation but a traditional practice, amongst most Muslims in the Gambia but that does not make it an obligation. It is a practice that has not been publicly questioned by our grandparents. Thus it was assumed to be Islamic.
DNS: What are if any regrets you have as woman activist campaigning against harmful traditional practices?
Amie: My only regret is that it has taken so long to bring public consciousness on the issues, while thousands of girls continued to suffer in silence and their sexual and reproductive health and rights being violated. Furthermore, while it is about women’s bodies, it is men who think they have the authority to decide on what should be said or not about women’s bodies and do not understand when women speak out for themselves.

DNS:How has marriage and motherhood changed your life in this fight?
Amie: My involvement in the campaign to fight against FGM was when I was married and a mother. So it further empowered me with information to be able to protect my daughter.

DNS: At what point in your life did you become involved in this campaign?
Amie: I was working with the National Radio- Radio Gambia ( now GRTS) producing and presenting programmes on health and Musol Taa (a weekly Women’s Magazine in Mandinka). I recall that it was in the late 1980s when I was assigned to cover a sensitisation meeting with the National Women Councilors at the Women’s Bureau office in Banjul. This where I first heard about the issues relating to FGM and how it affects women discussed. Coming from the culture, I became conscious of what was happening to many women. I could also relate to the stories because I was also a survivor of FGM.

DNS: You have put your life at risk for years of struggle. What inspirational factor keeps you pushing in this endeavour?

Amie: When you are a survivor of the cause and you are able to find your voice to question and say No to the violence inflicted on women and girls in the name of culture, you cannot stop. Also, the more I engaged with GAMCOTRAP, going to communities and hearing women telling their stories at night, I just found myself getting more involved without fear or regrets. I have realised that my voice is my power and that is all I have to make a difference in the lives of others. When GAMCOTRAP led the first Dropping of the Knife celebration in May 2007, I became aware that even though it may one may feel things are moving slowly; people are listening and taking informed decisions to protect girls from FGM. All these continue to motivate me made work with activists to reach out to more people.

DNS: How can you quantify the harmfulness of FGM in relation to an available Gambian case study where women are affected by the scourge?

Amie: During the community outreach activities we do in GAMCOTRAP, women do share stories with us on how Female Genital Mutilation has affected their sexual life, as well as how they suffer during child birth. In some instances case studies show how some helpless mothers watched their daughters die from bleeding after they have been cut. Other told us stories indicating why they hate to fulfill their marital relationship all because of the experience sealing which was as a result of FGM. The effects have also made some faced prolonged and difficult child birth. Some would simply avoid sex as much as they possibly can so as not to face the difficulties and pain they go through during sex. There are some who identify keloid as another effect of FGM. All these are cases we have collected during our programmes. Having realised that they are not alone, these testimonies are made in the open forums during training programmes.

DNS: What is your stand on the commonly cited Hadiths on FGM which is interpreted by some people as a practice legitimised by Islam?

Amie: The Hadith narrated by Abu Dawood, concluded that the source is not authentic, and all scholars, even those who do not support the campaign to stop FGM agree the Hadith is not authentic. Furthermore, it has not been recorded anywhere that FGM was a practice in the family of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (SAW). If he is the best example for all Muslims in protecting women and girls, why would he approve of a practice that causes unnecessary pain and suffering for women and children. A practices that does not determine your Muslimness. It should be noted that the areas they are linking FGM to Islam deal with cleanliness, and we all know what makes a Muslim women clean spiritually (from janab). This has nothing to do with cutting of any part of her body. The historic stories also deal with jealousy between co-wives, as in the case of the wives of Prophet Ibrahim, Hajara and Sarata. None of these justify FGM. People should realise that knowledge about Islam and Women’s rights have been widely researched and documented and is no longer the domain of the privileged few.
Some also argue that why did the prophet Muhammad not stop the practice, if the hadith is unauthentic how can you expect the Prophet making a declaration on it.

DNS: How optimistic are you that GAMCOTRAP is still a powerful organisation to end FGM in this country through their campaign?

Amie: It is the power of consciousness that is ending FGM in the Gambia. GAMCOTRAP is only taking leadership to reach out to the communities and to avail them that opportunity to get facts on FGM, to be able to make informed choices as individuals as well as communities. Such decisions can be made through the cluster approach in the different regions of the country. This provides the socio-cultural environment. However it is the government, our legislators in particular who have to take the leadership to provide the legal environment to end FGM in the Gambia. Together we can work to facilitate the processes involved to provide the socio-cultural and legal environment to protect vulnerable girls and women from FGM.

DNS: People do doubt how gender activists live with and treat their husbands. As an exemplary woman in this struggle for years what is your perspective on that?

Amie: Let them find that out from the husbands! (Laughs). It is because the husbands know that the wives are women, just like the mothers, sisters, daughters, nieces, negibours and friends who deserve respect and should be supported to realise their potentials. They are partners, and partnership calls for dialogue, openness and trying to understand the other’ s point of view.
DNS: Haven been campaigning and citing different cases regarding FGM, can you please tell our readers what is your own experience as a woman who came from a cultural background that practices FGM?

Amie: I am a survivor of FGM from the age of 10 years. Like any other woman who had gone through FGM, at Child birth I suffered. These experiences empower me with firsthand knowledge of what women and girls go through, just like most women coming from the culture. I’m glad I was able to find my voice on time to protect my daughter and now many others in the family are following the trend to say No to FGM. It has several effects on me that is why I cannot stop empowering others to say No to FGM.

DNS: In your opinion, what makes a person a good women’s right advocate?

Amie: First of all you must have a fundamental belief in women as equal citizen to men. One must understand the underlying patriarchal principle being upheld in dealing with women’s issues, whether in policies and in practice. One must always be alert to how you deal with gender issues in our society to avoid stereotyping women and putting us all in one box. We are all unique in our own ways and one cannot be discriminated merely based on her sex and the society’s persecution of gender relations. We are all women’s rights advocates; the difference is being a women’s rights activist. That requires leaving your comfort zone to give opportunities for others to self realise.

DNS: You were charged with theft but later declare not guilty of the allegation, how did the people in your life responded during and after the trial?

Amie: They believed in me and stick by my side during and after. They gave me the moral support needed and were always with me in the 66 court appearances.

DNS: Do you feel that this experience has affected the way you campaign for women's right?

Amie: No, indeed, I learned more why I need to continue to do well and stay professional. If we were not doing the right thing, communities would not have been responding positively. Remember that it was during the trial that the third Dropping of the knife was held in 2011, in the Lower River Region and the processes leading to the 4th Dropping of the Knife was advanced in the Central River Region North. As you may have realized, our first major activity has just concluded in January 10th when Chiefs, women Leaders, Alkalo, Imams and youth leaders at the Paradise Suites Hotel to support the advocacy for a Proposed Bill to Prohibit FGM in the Gambia. This is positive and therefore another manifestation that the work we are doing to promote the rights of women and children is appreciated by genuine Gambians and their friends.

DNS: What advice can you give other women activists who want to promote the welfare of women in this country?

Amie: Let us belief in what we claim. Give solidarity and support were it is due. We should respect and recognise our strengths and our weakness in the women’s movement in the Gambia. As we enter a new year, let us renew our resolve to protect girls and women from FGM and say No to Violence Against Women. GAMCOTRAP is open to all who genuinely wants to make a difference in the lives of women. As the celebrate of the International Day to Zero Tolerance on the 6th February and One Billion Rising on the 14th February, we have the opportunity to reunited and bring our energies together as women and men who care to make a positive difference in the lives of women and girls. Together we can move faster and better.

DNS:Thanks for your time
Amie: It was a pleasure.

Author: Binta A Bah

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