On Wednesday January 24 this year a women was found dead in mysterious circumstances in a salon in Kololi. On 28 November 2017 another woman was found dead and thrown on the streets in Manjai. On 29 May 2017 a man said to be in his early twenties raped an eight-year old girl in Lamin village leading to her death. This is outrageous! These are just a few reported cases of violence against our women and girls.
It is clear that if there has been more investigative journalism and more openness by individuals and communities as well as victims, one would have seen a plethora of abuses and violence that Gambian girls and women endure every day of their lives in homes, work places, businesses and in the community.
These injustices are perpetrated because of the prevailing patriarchal sociocultural system backed by misinterpreted Islamic ideas in which both men and women are severely indoctrinated to belief in the inherent weakness and marginalization of women. Injustice against women is also perpetrated by exploitative business practices where companies exploit women’s bodies as objects and a means to market their products and services for profit.
Furthermore violence against women is perpetrated by the State itself through, either the absence of women-friendly policies and laws or the lack or limited enforcement of policies and laws or weak capacity and inefficiency in our institutions or failure to allocate enough resources to institutions and services that serve women and girls. Because of these factors, women and girls in the Gambia continue to be disadvantaged, discriminated, abused or denied opportunities hence live a life of powerlessness, voicelessness and insecurity.
For example, even when the Gambia had abolished FGM and early marriage, these practices still continue in our communities without adequate vigilance by the State. Many young girls have become extremely vulnerable simply because of limited education, skills or jobs. Consequently many young Gambian women have become victims of abuse and harassment in their homes, communities and work places.
It is in light of these factors that Gambians must be alarmed at the spate of fatally violent attacks against women and girls. In the New Gambia, there must be zero tolerance for violence against women and girls. After 53 years of Independence, the Gambian woman and girl must not be a victim of any kind. The Gambia woman and girl must not live her life at the mercy of her father, husband, uncle, brother, male colleague or male friend.
Rather the Gambia woman and girl must be an equal participant and partner at home, in the community, at the work place and at centres of power, decision making and in leadership. The Gambian woman and girl must enjoy the necessary protection and access the necessary opportunities to acquire the necessary education and skills for her own empowerment, participation and development.
Ironically, despite the high prevalence of violence and marginalization against the Gambian Woman yet the Gambia has all the necessary policies and laws to protect the rights and dignity of women. These include the National Policy for the Advancement of Gambian Women (1999-2009), the National Gender and Women Empowerment Policy 2010-2020, and the Gender Mainstreaming and Women Empowerment Strategic Plan (2010-2015), the Women’s Act 2010, the Sexual Offences Act 2013, the Domestic Violence Act 2013 as well as the Children’s Act 2005.
Similarly all the necessary institutions are also in place such as the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare, the Women’s Bureau as well as the Department of Social Welfare for the protection and empowerment of women. Why therefore are the rights and dignity of women challenged in this society?
From the foregoing it is clear that the fundamental challenge women face in this society is the poor implementation of policies and laws because of low political will, weak institutions and poor performance of public officers. Furthermore women’s rights are being hampered by the blatant politicization of women’s issues by political parties and politicians on both sides and the lethargic attitude of the general public towards women’s rights.
For example where the global standard is to have women constitute at least 30% of the parliament, in the case of the Gambia, out of 58 National Assembly members only three have been elected while another three were nominated by the president – making a total of six female members or a paltry 10.3% representation! In the outgoing Local Councils, women constitute only 13.2% of the 114 elected councils. While the Gambia has witnessed a string of female Speakers of the National Assembly, it is noteworthy that these women are only Nominated Members.
If the Gambia is to become an equal and just society that will provide and guarantee opportunities and prosperity to all and sundry then there is need to have transparent, accountable and efficient state institutions that are adequately resourced from our budget and empowered with competent and efficient personnel and tools to provide quality goods and services to women and girls.
To be able to ensure such robust and efficient institutions the Government needs to separate the Ministry of Women’ Affairs from the Office of the Vice President so that the ministry can conveniently and professionally focus on women and girls issues without being fettered by the politics and the bureaucracy of the Office of the Vice President. Secondly the Women’s Bureau need to transformed into a commission and removed from under the Office of the Vice President to stand alone as a statutory body answerable to only the National Assembly so that it is adequately empowered and become more efficient in addressing women and girls issues.
Similarly the Department of Social Welfare must also be removed from under the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare to become a truly independent state institution fully empowered to effectively address women and girls issues. Finally Gambian law enforcement agencies must be purposefully empowered with knowledge, skills and tools in gender analysis in order to better understand and confront violence against women and girls.
We need law and policymaking processes that directly and urgently involve women and girls from conception, formulation, implementation and monitoring of laws and policies. This is the only way we will ensure a just and equal society where women, just like men would be able to access opportunities and reach their full human potential in order to effectively contribute to national development.
International Women’s Day emerged out of the struggles of women for better working conditions, security, equality, right to vote, peace and respect for their worth and dignity as human beings. In 1909 the first organized protest by women was staged in New York. Since then several protests and conferences were held in various countries of Europe between 1910 and 1914 by women to agitate for equality, protection and opportunities. It was in 1977 that the UN formally declared March 8 as International Women’s Day.
Therefore after 41 years of marking this day and after 53 years of nationhood, the Gambian woman and girl must not be a victim anymore in her society. It is long overdue for the Gambian society to destroy all barriers, be they religious, cultural, institutional, legal or attitudinal that impedes the rights and freedoms of women as equal members of their society.
For the Gambia, Our Homeland.