The Gambia: Protect defenders of women's rights

In a joint report, ISHR and ACDHRS call on CEDAW to ensure that the concerns of WHRDs in The Gambia are well reflected, that their work is safeguarded and recognised, and to strengthen its response to reprisals in line with recently issued treaty body guidelines.

(Geneva) - The President of The Gambia has threatened human rights defenders with death should they criticise the government, rendering all those who defend human rights at risk, ISHR has told a UN committee of human rights experts reviewing the situation in the country this week. For women human rights defenders, including those defending women’s and sexual rights, their gender can be a factor compounding the risks they face. 

In a joint report, ISHR and the African Centre for Democracy and Human Rights Studies (ACDHRS) have called upon the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women to place enquiry about the situation of women defenders at the heart of its review of The Gambia, and strengthen its response to reprisals in line with recently issued treaty body guidelines. The Commitee will produce a report containing key findings and recommendations on The Gambia's compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women by 27 July.

In The Gambia, discrimination against women, as well as extensive violations of the right to defend rights, create a highly restrictive environment for women human rights defenders to work in. Women who take a stand to defend human rights can be accused of stepping beyond the role they are ascribed as women in society. Where these women defenders’ work challenges cultural and traditional practices, backlash can be powerful. 

The joint submission outlines the cases of attacks against defenders working in support of sexual and reproductive rights. It expresses concern over the criminalization of Isatou Touray, the director of Gambian NGO GAMCOTRAP that focuses on the elimination of female genital mutilation, and her colleague Amie Bojang-Sissoho. Furthermore, GAMCOTRAP’s religious advisor, Imam Baba Leigh, was disappeared and detained incommunicado for six months. ‘President Jammeh has consistently failed to express any concern about attacks or threats toward defenders of sexual and reproductive rights,’ said ISHR’s Pooja Patel.

The Convention is highly pertinent to the protection of women defenders. CEDAW Article 7 (c) protects the right of women ‘to participate in non-governmental organizations and associations concerned with the public and political life of the country’. Working for the respect of human rights is a key role at the heart of the public and political life of a country. In addition, the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices is a cornerstone of the Convention (Article 5). One of the principal factors impeding women enjoying their fundamental rights – including the right to defend rights – is the influence of culture, religion and tradition, and their manipulation for political reasons. 

‘Women defenders face discrimination as women and risk attack as they challenge that very discrimination and call for human rights accountability. It is vital that CEDAW consistently incorporate into their enquiry as a committee the experience of women human rights defenders,’ said Pooja Patel. ‘If discrimination and violence against women is to be effectively challenged, human rights to be respected and the rule of law upheld, women defenders must be able to operate free from fear or hindrance.’ 

In regard to meeting obligations under CEDAW, there have been advances, including through the passage of the Domestic Violence and Sexual Offences Acts, but work on a bill to outlaw female genital mutilation remains painstakingly slow. In addition, there are no effective mechanisms for upholding women’s rights, including sexual and reproductive rights.

For those challenging discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in the Gambia, the situation is grim. In the Gambia, homosexual conduct is criminalized for women and men. President Jammeh has publicly and repeatedly criticized human rights defenders promoting and protecting the rights of sexual minorities, and has called homosexuality one of the ‘biggest threats to human existence’.[1] The recent amendment of the Criminal Code on ‘aggravated homosexuality’ introduces the criminal offence of ‘aggravated homosexuality’ which carries punishments of up to life in prison and contributes to the existing climate of hostility against LGBT persons.

‘The Committee has acknowledged perceived or real sexual orientation and gender identity are compounding factors in women’s experience of discrimination, in its General Comments 27 and 28,’ said Pooja Patel, ‘It is important for the Committee to ask questions and make recommendations regarding the experience of defenders challenging discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, which is currently effectively carried out clandestinely.’

In the recent UPR review, The Gambia noted that it ‘had no objection to any Special Rapporteurs from the UN Human Rights Council interested in visiting The Gambia in respect of the mandate of the Human Rights Council.’ [2] CEDAW should encourage The Gambia in extending invitation to relevant UN Special Procedures, including the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, the Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and practice, and the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders. 

Given this context of intimidation and attack, concerns about reprisals against those cooperating with the Treaty Body, are key. At their recent annual meeting, Treaty Body Chairpersons adopted the Guidelines against intimidation or reprisals (known as the ‘San José Guidelines’)

‘It would important for the Committee to respond to the new Guidelines by designating a committee rapporteur on intimidation or reprisals during this session.  The rapporteur would assess allegations and determine an appropriate course of action. The Committee should also consider steps to prevent attacks against those that cooperate with the Committee,’ said Pooja Patel. 

ACDHRS and ISHR make the following recommendations to the Gambian state in regard to the implementation of their commitments under CEDAW:

  • enact laws that promote and protect the rights of women, including women human rights defenders, and harmonize existing civil and religious laws all in line with Gambia's obligations under the international treaties it has ratified
  • ensure effective and relevant mechanisms and bodies are put in place to implement policies promoting the rights of women, including women human rights defenders. 
  • establish a national human rights institution, fully compliant with the Paris Principles, that places at the heart of its concerns addressing the compatibility of the Gambian legal framework with international human rights commitments, and providing a focus on the protection of women human rights defenders. 
  • sign and ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

Contact: Pooja Patel, Women Human Rights Defender Programme Manager, ISHR, on [email protected]


[1] UN General Assembly on 27th September 2013

[2] A/HRC/WG.6/20/GMB/1  para 159

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