The Five Questions Series is a forum for scholars, government officials, civil society leaders, and foreign policy practitioners to provide timely analysis of new developments related to the advancement of women and girls worldwide. This interview is with Dr. Isatou Touray, an activist for women’s rights who announced her candidacy for the presidency of the Gambia in September 2016.
Your candidacy marks the first time in the history of the Gambia that a woman is running for president. Can you describe the barriers to Gambian women’s political participation and leadership?
Literacy rates in the Gambia have traditionally been very low, and this has hit women the hardest. Indeed, only 31 percent of women in the country can read and write. This low level of education has affected other socio-economic and political indicators as well. For example, though women comprise over 50 percent of the population, there are currently only two elected women in the National Assembly, and representation in local councils remains equally low.
This unacceptable level of political representation is largely due to the patriarchal nature of our society. It is also influenced by the Gambia’s conservative socio-cultural beliefs, as well as misconceived Islamic ideas. Since culture and religion hold tremendous sway over the lives of our people, women have been unduly marginalized for decades. Thus, to now have a woman like myself—who is well-educated and outspoken—to muster the courage and determination to seek the Gambia’s highest office is revolutionary. My campaign is demystifying Gambian politics and challenging preconceived notions about leadership. Importantly, I hope that my campaign serves as a source of inspiration and courage to other women in the Gambia, especially young girls, to realize that they have the right and inherent capacity to be leaders and to seek office.
My country desperately needs and yearns for ethical leadership, transparency and openness, respect for basic rights and human development. It is my goal to usher in this new reality.
In the past year, the Gambia has made international headlines with bans on female genital mutilation (FGM) and child marriage. You spent decades campaigning against the harmful traditional practice of FGM. Why was the ban necessary, what role did your organization GAMCOTRAP play in enacting it?
As a longtime human rights activist, I made it a priority to both educate people about this unacceptable practice and seek to effectively end it. It was long overdue. Much work remains to be done, however. A legislative ban does not mean the practice has actually ended.
President Jammeh, for instance, has directly promoted FGM, which he said forms part of our culture, and that those who promoted its ban—like me—are foreign-backed agents merely looking for a payday from donors. At one point, the government actually ordered the national television to not carry news of anti-FGM campaigns. In 2010, I was illegally and unjustly detained for several days—along with my assistant at GAMCOTRAP—and later arrested on trumped up criminal charges for advocating against FGM.
At the end of the day, I think President Jammeh had no choice but to ban FGM, mainly due to pressures from both inside the country and the public spotlight that emanated from the outside. The Gambia is a member of the international community and has ratified a number of international and regional human rights treaties; thus, it had to live up to its obligations.
What are the major challenges to implementing the legal ban on FGM?
The major challenge is to sensitize individuals and local communities, helping them to understand the law and thus allow them to abandon the practice altogether. Our message is that FGM harms all of Gambian society so long as it harms women.
Just as importantly, we must understand that the banning of FGM leaves a vacuum in the socio-cultural space of many people— this void has to be filled for both the FGM practitioners and the girls. Addressing this oft overlooked issue is a huge priority for GAMCOTROP and other concerned citizens moving forward.
You have spoken before about the economic hardships many Gambians face, particularly in rural areas, and about the need for women’s economic empowerment. How does women’s participation in the workforce further economic growth?
Much like other nations across the world, Gambian society is gradually evolving in important ways. Even in spite of my country’s deep-seated cultural foundations, many more women are getting educated and many are moving to urban areas where they have greater access to new technologies like the internet and satellite television. Indeed, just like other countries in West Africa, the Gambia is slowly being transformed through the power of globalization.
For women in particular, many are now involved in petty trading and running small-scale businesses. Others are also having the opportunity to travel outside the country. While seemingly simple and straightforward, and not at all revolutionary for women in other parts of the world, these changes are having profound effects on Gambian society overall. While many challenges remain—for instance, women have low access to credit and do not typically have control or ownership of land—it is a fact that Gambian women are determined and passionate about changing their lives and that of their families.
Women are now more active economic players in the Gambia and this is a positive step forward. As the saying goes: when you educate a man you educate a person, but when you educate a woman you educate a nation. Hence, an economically viable and empowered woman will help to raise our country’s GDP, enhance the standard of living of families, and protect the future of the girl-child and the continued viability of the country.
Many activists as well as external observers claim that APRC rule has resulted in deteriorating state institutions and significant abuses of state power. What is your vision for political and economic reform in the Gambia?
We have seen throughout history how tyranny can destroy the countries and the people around us. Even after the conflict ends, many societies wallow in a cycle of poverty, oppression, and exploitation. This is my biggest worry and fear about the Gambia today. And this is what we are fighting against, and what I am fighting to change as candidate for president. My vision is to rescue this country from the brink of collapse that we find ourselves on, and start the journey from there to rectify, innovate and produce a truly decent society that all Gambians rightly deserve and can be proud of.
My message is one of unity and equality. Together, we must all engage in this change process. To do this work, which I consider a national imperative, I am seeking the cooperation and support of all our opposition parties, and indeed all Gambians, because this is a national calling.