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Gambian Human Rights Activist Visits Juniata College

(Posted April 28, 2014)

Dr. Tourey with Juniata students during her visit.

Juniata College has been sending students to The Gambia for exchange programs for over 10 years. This has been a life-altering study abroad opportunity for many people, as they are dropped into a culture totally foreign to their own. On April 14, Dr. Isatou Touray, from the Gambia, visited Juniata to present her work with the Gambia Committee on Traditional Practices, or GAMCOTRAP, an organization that deals with family issues and gender equality.

Q: Could you tell me about your work in The Gambia?
A: I am the Executive Director for the Gambia Committee on Traditional Practices, which focuses on respecting the health of women and children. We work on sexuality matters, women's rights, gender and violence, and female genital mutilation (FGM). We do a lot of educating children in terms of creating awareness among different groups within society and also trying to influence policy and law to improve the condition of women in The Gambia.

Q: What are some of the challenges that you have in moving your initiatives forward?

A: Female genital mutilation is a longstanding tradition for many, many years, and people associate it wrongly with Islam. Of course, female genital mutilation is part of our culture, but also the most important element that makes it resistant to change is that people believe it is a religious injunction. So that is the challenge. Now with knowledge and awareness, we are aware that female genital mutilation has no religious justification. It was misinterpreted. So changing that notion, you have to engage in a lot of debate with religious scholars, some of them who do not even know that it has nothing to do with Islam because they were born into it, their family practiced it and, naturally, they want to justify it in the name of Islam. So engaging them, reversing the already known knowledge they have to see the truth. And the fact that it is coming from women's rights activists or women themselves is a challenge for men in that context. Also, we have to confront the ignorance of the women because most of the religious scholars are men and actually they have a lot of followers. We have to focus on the women to empower them to know their rights.

Q: How do you go about educating the women in terms of their religious understanding?

A: Something we try to do is to look at the cultural context in which we are. We know the religious scholars are normally the ones that do determine what they ought to do. So we bring them together, talk to them about it, and then we engage by looking at the Koran, looking at also some of the authentic documents, and then we are able to come to consensus with them and they become our advocate. They are also empowered in women's rights, human rights issues and also the various principles involved in promoting the rights of women and their children. And in that way we have very strong advocates, religious scholars who are actually engaging with their communities, with their constituencies, and also they use their platform within the tribal system to educate them.

Q: Do you think that it's easy for people who want to resist change to present these as western ideas?

A: Normally what they say is "Yes, you are talking like this because you are trained in the West, you are being influenced by the West. That's a strategy that people who want to resist change will always use because what we are talking about has nothing to do with western culture. It is about culture, and it also has to do with the fact that there is ignorance about the issue. So if you are bringing in the best practices from the West, why not? It has to do with our own cultural contexts and we have to address them, even if it means using western rationality to improve on that. The world is a Global Village and knowledge is universal so the truth is always there.

Q: What are some of the positive results you have seen so far in the work of GAMCOTRAP?

A: We've been doing this since 1984. And at the time there was a lot of resistance because it was about lifting the taboo over the practice because that was what we succeeded in doing during the first 15 years because at first we dared not take a person and talk about FGM. But then we were able to use our culturally relevant strategy to open the dialogue among our people, especially among the elders. Then, we got to the point where we assessed our strategies and said "What else do we do if the door is open? What can we do?" So what we did was to come up with a strategy looks at sexuality matters from different angles, like FGM and women's rights, FGM and children's rights, FGM and religion, FGM and culture, and asks what are the strategies that we can use in our cultural context to open up the dialogue and open up the debate? I work directly with the Council of Elders. When I listen to them, I realize that this is exactly what happened during the colonial period, where the existing structures were being used to push the agenda and I also use a similar strategy to engage with them.

Zachary Lemon, '14, Juniata Online Journalist

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Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.