Reversing the Ban on Female Circumcision in The Gambia: An Alarm Bell for Girls’ Education and Gender Equality Globally

Last month The Gambia’s National Assembly advanced a bill that, if ratified, would make it the first country to overturn a ban on female genital mutilation. These moves—supported by the predominantly male legislature—reflect the precarious nature of gains made in gender equality and have implications for girls’ education.

The practice of female circumcision, also referred to as female genital mutilation or cutting (FGM/C)—continues to harm the health and wellbeing of millions of girls and women. Each year, more than 3.5 million girls worldwide are at risk of FGM/C. And, while the exact number of women and girls who have been cut remains unknown, representative survey data suggests that at least 200 million women and girls have undergone FGM/C. In The Gambia—which has one of the highest prevalence in the world—more than 70 percent of women and girls over 15 and half of all girls under 14 have undergone FGM/C. Of the women who have undergone FGM/C, 65 percent underwent cutting before the age of 5.

Here, as The Gambia looks to reverse its 2015 ban on FGM/C, we explore the links with education and highlight why the elimination of the practice is so central to advancing girls’ education and gender equality (and vice versa). The attempt to reverse the ban in The Gambia should be an alarm bell for girls education advocates globally.

Figure 1. The prevalence of FGM/C in Africa

Figure 1:

Source: authors’ analysis using UNICEF Global Database 2020 and DHS.

FGM/C prevents girls from going to school

The links between FGM/C and girls’ education are strong. One recent study in Senegal documents the causal impact of the practice, showing that the introduction of a law banning FGM/C in Senegal meant girls were 16 percentage points less likely to have been cut. This large, significant effect enabled the researchers to then observe that a reduction in prevalence of FGM/C led in turn to an increased probability of girls going to school, especially in rural areas where the value of being cut in the marriage market is higher.

The Orchid Project suggests more reasons why FGM/C may directly lead to less schooling for adolescent girls. In the short-term, girls miss school to actually undergo the procedure, but the pain and complications which it can cause often require further recovery time, spent out of school. But it is the very belief that once circumcision is carried out girls are ready to get married that is perhaps the core reason why FGM/C leads directly to girls leaving school. And having paid for a costly FGM/C ceremony, parents may even be unable (or reluctant) to continue investing in their daughters’ education. More research would help our understanding of these mechanisms.

Support for FGM/C declines as male and female schooling increases

In most countries, support among men and women for continuing the practice of FGM/C  declines substantially with more years of education (figure 2). In Sierra Leone, an examination of women's perspectives on FGM/C revealed that those with higher education levels were more inclined to advocate for ending FGM/C. This observation is in line with broader findings across 12 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, where research highlighted a significant decrease in the likelihood of women and their daughters undergoing FGM/C as their educational attainment increased. A recent report from UNICEF (2022), drawing from data spanning 31 countries, emphasized that opposition to FGM/C is notably stronger among females with higher levels of education. Specifically, individuals with primary education showed a 30 percent higher likelihood of opposing FGM/C compared to those without formal education, while this percentage surged to 70 percent among those with secondary education or higher. And girls whose mothers have at least a primary education are 40 per cent less likely to be cut than those whose mothers have no education. This suggests that education plays a role in changing attitudes and intentions around the practice both in the present and intergenerationally.

Figure 2. Support for FGM/C, by years of education

Figure 2. Support for FGM/C, by years of education

Still, in some countries where the practice remains highly prevalent or where social pressures are high—including in The Gambia—FGM/C remains common among the daughters of educated women. This suggests that education alone is not enough to eliminate the practice.

Figure 3. Years of education by FGM/C status among women

Figure 3. Years of education by FGM/C status among women

Women who have more years of schooling are less likely to have undergone FGM/C than those with fewer years of schooling (figure 3). This pattern persists even when comparing women from households with similar income levels. However, there may be other confounding factors at play: parents of girls who do not undergo FGM/C might also value education more or might afford to keep them in school longer.

It’s alarming that The Gambia is considering reversing its ban

Bans aren't everything—they are often only partly implemented—but we do have good evidence that they make at least some difference to support for and prevalence of cutting. The 2005 Maputo Protocol explicitly condemns FGM/C and encourages signatories to pass legislation to prohibit it. Most African countries—including The Gambia—have ratified the protocol with some exceptions, including Sierra Leone. And many countries did subsequently pass legislation. The role of legislation in reducing a deeply rooted traditional practice like FGM/C has been debated—bans could have unintended consequences, for example driving the practice underground and making it even more unsafe, or reinforcing conservative opinion on the practice.

But looking across countries, by analysing support for FGM/C before and after legislation, we can see that bans are part of the solution. In all countries (except Nigeria, where it remains constant), we see a decline in the percentage of women who think the practice should continue after the ban (figure 4). In The Gambia, the share of women supporting FGM/C dropped from 65 percent to 46 percent after the 2015 legislation outlawing all forms of female circumcision. And CGD colleagues previously estimated that, over the ten year period starting in 2006 when the law was passed in Burkina Faso, prevented nearly a quarter of a million women and girls from undergoing FGM/C.

Figure 4. Support for FGM/C among women, before and after the ban 

The Gambia and beyond: Preventing a rollback of women’s rights and hard-won gains in girls education, globally

Efforts to reverse the ban in The Gambia demonstrate that established policy can be challenged. This underscores the necessity for more effective and comprehensive solutions. The factors that drive the practice tend to be locally rooted, ranging from social convention to religious belief (though no religion prescribes the practice) to marriage market norms. Solutions must similarly be local. Given the ingrained culture of FGM/C and the conflicts between different communities and religious leaders in The Gambia, it is local organisations and advocacy groups who must be supported to tackle the movement to reverse the ban: leveraging a powerful force for change from women who have firsthand experience of FGM/C and are determined to protect the next generation from the harmful practice.

At the same time, it’s vital to recognize the precariousness of women and girls’ rights globally and how policy change in one place can potentially affect lives well beyond its national borders. While changes in abortion law in the US have led to concern for a rollback of women’s rights globally, advocates fear that the attempts to reverse the FGM/C ban in The Gambia might impede efforts to eliminate FGM/C globally, including efforts to ban the practice in Sierra Leone.

The bill to repeal the ban in The Gambia will undergo voting in coming months. If passed, some fear child marriage will be the next to suffer setback. These consequences could extend to hurt girls and women elsewhere. Those interested in advancing girls’ education and gender equality worldwide should pay close attention to what is happening in The Gambia. A continued global commitment towards girls’ education and gender equality is crucial for sustaining positive change.

The title of this post has been revised to use the term “female circumcision” in accordance with the language used in Section 32A of the Women’s (Amendment) Act of 2015.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.

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