According to the 1993 Population and Housing Census, the Gambia has a population of 1,038,145 and estimated 49.9% of these were females.
Over the years, Gambian women have lagged behind men. This is mainly due to cultural and religious reasons, which have made them believe that they are inferior. This is evident in the special treatment accorded to boys over girls, this continues throughout their lives.
Women have very little decision-making power even regarding their health and that of their children. This has contributed to the high fertility rate of 6.0. Women start childbearing at early ages of 15 � 16 and continue up to 40 � 45 and at short intervals, thus the reason for the maternal mortality rate of 1,050 per 100,000 live births, one of the highest in the sub-region.
As their counterparts in the sub-region, Gambian women are engaged in formal and informal employment, domestic chores, community work, childbearing and rearing during their lifetime, their womanhood is only defined by their latter role. They receive recognition for this single role and are not given the required support in it.
The empowerment and the status of women in the Gambia and the improvement of their political, social, economic and health status is a matter of concern to individuals, government and non-governmental organisations.
Concern about the situation of women in the Gambia has drawn attention chiefly to the daily threats to their lives, health and well-being, as a result of over worked and their lack of power and influence.
One issue that was and is still clear by all indications in Gambian society is the opposition at all levels to equality in sharing power and decision-making with women. While decision-making is male dominated and is largely done by men, whether in offices in the home or elsewhere, equality of opportunity is yet to become a reality.
The integration of women as equal partners in all aspects of development has been a major issue since the 1970s. The United Nations declared 1975 as the International Women’s year, devoted to promote equality between men and women and to fully integrate them into development.
The achievements of the women’s year and decade resulted in the ratification of the convention on the Elimination of the All forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) by most countries including the Gambia. With the declaration of the International Women’s Decade (1975 � 1985), Gambian women began to gain visibility in terms of their participation in socio-economic development as well as in their decision-making capacity.
This period saw the setting up of the National women’s Council and Bureau by an Act of Parliament in 1980 to advise government on women’s issues and concerns.
An important development in the Gambia from 1985 to date has been the translation of commitment to women’s concerns into definite action through programmes and projects. Attempts have been made to uplift the status of Gambian women as called for in the Nairobi Forward Looking Strategies, the Beijing Platform of Action and the Cairo Programme for Action.
National Policies have now placed high priority on women and their role in the development of the Gambia. It is for instance the policy of the Agricultural sector to increase the productivity and production of women as they form the majority of the people working on the land as well as being the main food producers in the Gambia. The Health sector is on the trial of eradicating diseases within which the active participative role of women is indispensable.
It is also the policy of the Department of State for Education to increase opportunities for women through the enrolment of girls in primary and secondary education as well as the creation of a trust fund for the retention of girls in school.
The National Population Policy has clearly underscored that improving the status of women also enhances their decision-making capacity at all spheres of life, especially in the area of sexuality, reproduction, maternal and child health. It is the goal of the first national Policy for the Advancement of Gambian women to improve the quality of life of all Gambians, particularly women through the elimination of all forms of gender inequality by concrete gender in development measures.
The vision of the National Family Panning Policy is to promote the health and welfare of all Gambians and enhance the status of women, enabling them to fully participate in socio-economic development and to create an enabling environment that will enable couples and individuals to choose the desired family size to improve their reproductive life.
The Gambia’s development policies are based on the rationale that broad-based development in general and economic development in particular cannot be achieved without the active participation and involvement of women. Furthermore, the role of women as child bearers and nurturers in the society gives them the very important task of shaping the attitudes and outlooks of future generations of men and women at a very early stage.
With the realizations that government alone cannot meet all the challenges of development, the latter has created an enabling environment for other partners and actors in the development scene such as NGOs, to complement governments efforts.
In a developing country like the Gambia, collaboration between NGOs and government has been able to focus on the development needs of the country while reinforcing each others roles in the drive to fulfill the objectives of growth and women’s access to the productive process in many different ways, and several NGOs focus exclusively on impacting the status of women.
Since its establishment in 1980,the National Women’s Council and Bureau has been fully supportive of strides made by local women’s NGOs working towards the empowerment of women and improvement of the status of women.
In addition to the above, the government has responded to the call to women’s empowerment at decision making levels by setting up a Department of State for Women’s Affairs, appointing the first female Vice President in West Africa, ten women Secretaries of State in five years, a female Secretary General, Accountant General, Auditor General and also ratifying the National Women’s Policy for the Advancement of Gambian Women.