Mamasa Camara talks about her research and activism for women's health in the Gambia
Making cultural practices the focus of health and development initiatives overlooks the social, economic and political issues that put women’s bodies at risk. The idea that that notion perpetuates is that women do not know the cause of their own suffering and that interventions have to be imposed externally.Mamasa Camara
In 2012, in her first year at university Mamasa Camara set up a women’s health conference in the Gambia to create a space for women to talk about the issues that mattered to them and to hear their views on female genital cutting.
Since then she has seen how the global campaign against female genital cutting has become big business, attracting a lot of money, at a time when there is a desperate need for funding for general health infrastructure as well as impacting African women’s rights in the west. Mamasa feels the campaign is now doing more harm than good and her PhD in Multi-disciplinary Gender Studies, which she is just finishing, has investigated that process of change.
It came about after over a decade of activism on the issue of female genital cutting and it uses the practice as a way of understanding international development, women’s rights activism and western interventions and policies and practices that purport to make women’s lives or health better but may in fact cause more harm.
Mamasa  uses the term female genital cutting as she says female genital mutilation is highly politicised. Her interest is in hearing from women in West Africa about their views of the impact of global interventions and the social, economic and political ramifications of these.
Campaigning on women’s health
Mamasa grew up between the Gambia and the US. Her father was a traditional healer, a role that was passed down through the family and meant that he was viewed as a community leader in the US. Her mother died when she was very little and Mamasa grew up with a strong interest in women’s health.
She has been working on female genital cutting since setting up the first youth-led national health conference on the issue in 2012 and then going on to set up a women’s health initiative in the Gambia to understand women’s health concerns.
“The conference became my point of departure,” she says. It came about after she started questioning the campaign about female genital cutting. She states: “No-one spoke about it in my community and I wondered why, why is the narrative about female cutting being both produced and consumed in the West and how can African women be centred in their own experiences.” She researched how female genital cutting is practised in different places and what it means to those who practise it and wrote her plan for the conference while in the US, getting the endorsement of the Vice President of The Gambia in the process.
Mamasa says the conference, which has been held annually until Covid, left her shocked at the gap between western developmental perspectives on female cutting and African women’s actual health concerns, such as lack of access to healthcare, standards in maternity and reproductive care and the health impact of climate change. She states: “I began to understand the workings of the anti-FGM campaign, and international development more broadly, how it frames women’s problems and prescribes solutions that are often out of touch with their everyday realities. These campaigns and actions can potentially cause more harm than good because they lack a genuine commitment to actively listen to and prioritise the voices of people directly affected, thereby undermining the ability to create meaningful change based on their perspectives and experiences.”
After the 2012 conference Mamasa returned to the US where she says she was approached by western media and agencies looking for the ‘face’ of the FGM campaign because her university, Spelman College, had done a profile of her work. “I was not able to articulate at the time why the way they wanted to position me made me feel uncomfortable, or why there seemed to be parallels between that and the colonial portrayal of Africans as people who don’t know how to think about their own traditions, and who live in barbaric societies,” says Mamasa. “It was very seductive, though. A kind of call to power.”
She said no and a relative was cast instead. “I would have been a victim of a campaign that may be well intentioned but is greatly misinformed, one that usurps and channels people’s power in a particular direction,” she says. “I got the sense that participating in their campaigns would compromise my sense of truth, and that of my own experience.”
Mamasa decided she needed more time and space to think about the issues raised by her experiences as an activist and the role of western intervention in women’s health and applied to Cambridge to do first an MPhil and then a PhD. She is also interested in how she can create a type of activism that is accountable to the communities it serves. One area of focus is how the western approach to female cutting has been internalised by young African people despite it having little to do with health priorities on the ground.
During her fieldwork in the Gambia she noted that young people were adopting the terminology used by the World Health Organization to address female genital cutting, despite it not being the primary cause of women’s hardships. “Young people spoke as if they were reading from a script, like they had memorised the global ideas about female genital cutting, especially prioritising the term mutilation, even though there is no evidence that that type of genital cutting exists in the country,” she says, adding: “If we just change the faces of those involved in colonial practices and do not change the practices themselves, we are in danger of reproducing those very same dynamics.”
She says there is a link between youth activism against female genital cutting and the funding available for such campaigns. She adds that the campaigns can end up criminalising innocent people and profiling whole communities as well as making African governments prioritise laws against female genital cutting and funding for campaigns on this rather than funding the kind of social welfare programmes that would have a much bigger impact on women.
In 2018 Mamasa attended a Hidden Voices roundtable in London which included a range of health workers and others. She found increasing concerns that FGM policies are being used to reduce women’s rights, with, she says, claims that women from certain countries are being surveilled, interrogated and victimised by the NHS system, immigration and social services and potentially having their children taken away from them while communities are being divided against each other. “Some of the architects of the movement against FGM were saying it had gone too far and had had unintended consequences,” says Mamasa.
She was invited to be part of a group of scholars that have studied female genital cutting from very different backgrounds. “We have come together to discuss the deep harms and violence that the global anti-FGM campaign has caused to African women,” she says. The aim is to push back against the foregrounding of certain cultural practices in health, development and intellectual work and to focus instead on the need for support and partnership to address the concerns of women on the ground.
Mamasa is aware that speaking out is risky. “My approach is distinct in that it undercuts the usual discourse and perspectives of western activists and as a consequence, I have been cornered, victimised and sometimes silenced,” she says. “We are in such a hostile environment. I have been told to be careful because the anti-FGM movement is so strong and powerful. It’s difficult to find the space to have a healthy debate about this.”
Even in academia, she says, questioning the anti-FGM campaign is “a dangerous position to hold”, with some leaving the academy in order to speak up about it. The group wants to create an alternative space where accurate knowledge can be shared and where alternative ways of understanding culture and tradition can be created. “Activism doesn’t necessarily mean doing away with tradition,” says Mamasa.
She sees the group’s purpose as being about holding leaders to account. She is also continuing her work with the women’s health initiative in the Gambia and looking to expand that into an organisation based around development and healthcare which involves women on the ground and which aims to channel resources into communities so they can use them to address the health issues that are a priority for them.
She says: “Making cultural practices the focus of health and development initiatives overlooks the social, economic and political issues that put women’s bodies at risk. The idea that that notion perpetuates is that women do not know the cause of their own suffering and that interventions have to be imposed externally.”
*Picture credit: The top photo showcases a group of community members in the village of Jamagen, located in the central river region of the Gambia. Standing in front of an unfinished community health clinic, they share a common goal of completing a project that as been in progress for nearly a decade. The women pooled resources to initiate construction and then had to appeal for additional funds.