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Gambia: Information on Muslim women, marriage and divorce, and the Shari'a law on spousal abuse

Publisher Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada
Author Research Directorate, Immigration and Refugee Board, Canada
Publication Date 1 May 1994
Citation / Document Symbol GMB17228.E
Cite as Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, Gambia: Information on Muslim women, marriage and divorce, and the Shari'a law on spousal abuse, 1 May 1994, GMB17228.E, available at: [accessed 4 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


Information on statistics on spousal abuse and the provisions of Shari'a law regulating spousal abuse could not be found among the sources currently available to the DIRB.

However, the following general information on the situation of women in Gambia may prove useful. Gambia is 85 per cent Muslim and the population is primarily rural with only 21 per cent living in towns (Encyclopedia of the Third World 1992, 659-60). According to Country Reports for Human Rights Practices for 1993, women in Gambia are socially disadvantaged in marriage, education and the workplace (1994, 110). Female children account for a third of primary school enrolment, while only a quarter enrol in high school (ibid.). Muslim law allows for polygamy but domestic violence is reportedly rare, although police will intervene when they receive complaints and authorities will prosecute when complaints are filed (ibid.). Nonetheless, it is the Shari'a law that governs Muslim marriage and divorce proceedings:

The rights of the family are of great importance in Gambia's conservative Muslim society. Marriage, the rearing of children, and religious instruction are regulated primarily by personal preference and ethnic and religious tradition; the Government does not normally intrude in family matters (ibid., 108).

A paper on traditional practices and women's rights in West Africa, presented at the United Nations World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993, corroborates the above information. The paper adds that women are subject to female genital mutilation, early arranged marriages, polygamy and divorce without their consent. According to the paper's author, the Gambian International Society for Human Rights (ISHR), "women are divorced in different ways mostly without honour. It can be done anytime a man feels so," (ibid., 16).

Men are reportedly asked to pay huge sums of money in bride price to the family of the bride prior to marriage. The paper states that this practice doubly disadvantages women. One the one hand because men who cannot afford to pay the money shy away from marriage, "this has threatened many men to marry and women are denied the right to marry," and on the other, the paper blames this practice for abuse in marriage:

Due to the huge amount of money spent on them before marriage, they are usually treated badly ... There are certain mem who usually ask their wives to pay back their bride price when the wife requests for divorce (ibid., 17).

The paper also states that in Muslim communities, women are subjected to the purdah. This means that a married woman is confined to the home with very limited freedom of movement. Visits to friends and even close relatives are prohibited. Usually all visitors are screened before entry into the home and the woman may not be allowed to entertain male visitors (ibid., 18).

According to the Encylopedia of the Third World, the situation is changing:

Marriages are still arranged, but there is increasing freedom of personal choice. Family planning, focused on the health and welfare of mother and child, remains controversial but is gaining acceptance (1992, 660).

This response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the DIRB within time constraints. This response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim to refugee status or asylum.


Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1993. 1994. United States Department of State. Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office.

Encyclopedia of the Third World. 1992. 4th ed. Vol. 3. Edited by George Thomas Kurian. New York: Facts on File.

International Society for Human Rights ISHR/IGFM, Gambia. "Traditional Practices and Women's Rights in West Africa." (paper presented at UN World Conference on Human Rights, Vienna, 14-25 June 1993).


International Society for Human Rights ISHR/IGFM, Gambia. "Traditional Practices and Women's Rights in West Africa." (paper presented at UN WOrld Conference on Human Rights, Vienna, 14-25 June 1993).

Copyright notice: This document is published with the permission of the copyright holder and producer Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB). The original version of this document may be found on the offical website of the IRB at Documents earlier than 2003 may be found only on Refworld.

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