In early September, Gambian feminist activist Isatou Touray stood before a crowd of reporters in the seaside town of Kololi and chastised the administration of President Yahya Jammeh, who has ruled over Gambia with an iron fist since he took power through a bloodless coup in 1994. Touray accused Jammeh of pilfering the country’s natural resources for his own benefit, purposely failing to uphold the rule of law and delegating power to a small and exclusive circle of corrupt men.
Then she declared her plans to push him out of office in the December 1 presidential election by running for his seat herself. “It is time for him to leave,” she said.
The first woman to ever run for presidential office in Gambia, the smallest country on Africa’s mainland, Touray, 61, had decided to take on a man whose rule has been marked by rising poverty, inaction on women’s health issues and the quashing of political dissent. Although Jammeh came to power promising prosperity for Gambia’s working class, economic conditions in the country have dramatically worsened during his five consecutive terms in power, pushing thousands of young men to flee the country and make the dangerous trek to Libya in an attempt to cross the Mediterranean into Europe. Gambia, a country of fewer than 2 million people, is now one of the leading providers of refugees to Europe, with some 10 percent of asylum seekers registered in Italy last year identified as Gambian.
As circumstances at home worsened, Touray’s background as an advocate for the rights of Gambia’s most marginalized populations at first seemed to offer her a real shot at defeating Jammeh in December. As is the case with more than 70 percent of Gambian women, Touray was forcibly genitally mutilated as a child, after her family told her that the traditional circumcision was mandatory in Islam. When she left Gambia to attend university in Nigeria – and later earn her master’s degree in The Hague and her doctorate in development in the U.K. – Touray committed herself to understanding the harmful side effects of female genital mutilation (FGM), which reduces women’s ability to experience sexual pleasure and can cause lifelong health problems. She also wanted to know why Gambians were so wary of dropping the practice.
“I thought, this will be the path of my life – to liberate and free women from any abuse of their sexual and reproductive rights,” she said in a phone call while she was out on the campaign trail. Touray’s ambition soon translated into action: She founded the Gambia Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children, a civil society group that has spent decades campaigning against both child marriage and FGM in a country that continuously refused to curb the practices despite progress elsewhere in the region. Human rights groups give Touray’s grassroots campaigns much of the credit for Gambia’s decision to outlaw FGM in November last year and legally ban child marriage in July 2016.
Still, Touray didn’t initially see her activism as a natural path to politics. She was already facing criticism and intimidation in her work even before she considered running for office. Community leaders accused her of acting as a mouthpiece for the West when she first returned home to fight against FGM, and she was briefly jailed alongside another human rights defenders in 2010, after Jammeh’s government accused them of misappropriating funds for their activism.
But then Ousainou Darboe, leader of the opposition United Democratic Party (UDP), and 18 other political activists were sentenced to three years in prison following their April arrests for unauthorized protests. Touray saw an opening for her to enter the political sphere, challenge Jammeh’s hold on power and advocate for women’s rights and freedom of expression as an independent candidate in the election. “There is a serious governance crisis now,” she said. “Nobody has come out to express themselves without being arrested.”
Jeffrey Smith, an expert on Gambia and founding director of Vanguard Africa, an initiative that promotes transparent governance, said that the launch of Touray’s campaign was “hugely significant” not only because she is the first woman to seek Gambia’s highest office, but because she has a track record of motivating progressive change in the country’s conservative political and social climate.
“This is a highly patriarchal society where women oftentimes are viewed as second-class citizens,” Smith said. “Her candidacy is hugely inspiring not only to women and girls, but to people who care about democracy, good governance and ethical leadership.”
Despite decades of allegations of human rights abuses carried out by Jammeh’s regime, ranging from systematic violence toward women to the disappearances, jailings and extrajudicial murders of political opposition, the international community has largely failed to hold the Gambian government responsible for its failings, Smith said. “Dictators like Yahya Jammeh thrive in the shadows and operate in secret. They bank on the fact the outside world isn’t paying attention.”
In late October, in an effort to increase their likelihood of beating Jammeh, a number of opposition candidates from other parties united behind the UDP’s candidate, Adama Barrow, who announced he would stand in the election after his colleagues were arrested. But Touray says the allied group of male candidates purposely excluded her from discussions about forming their powerful coalition, despite her interest in collaborating on a plan to force Jammeh out of power by unifying the opposition. “I was excluded because I am a woman,” she said. When the coalition then pressured her to drop out of the race and back Barrow as an independent candidate, Touray initially refused.
“This is a highly male-dominated space,” she said. “I have been discriminated against, I have been sidelined, and there is a lot of insinuation and writing on the wall that: ‘You are not welcome here.’”
Touray said she still sees herself as the most qualified candidate out of the pool. But recognizing that her chances of winning in the face of the powerful umbrella group were slim, and that running as an independent could split the vote in Jammeh’s favor, Touray warily withdrew from the race in early November. She has since thrown her support behind Barrow, joining the coalition that initially rejected her. “They feel: Why should I come and lead them as a woman?” she said. “They forget I am not there to lead them, I am there to join them.”