Jaha Dukureh is a force to be reckoned with. After the death of her mother, who passed away when Dukureh was only 14, she arrived in New York City from The Gambia, her native country, on Christmas Day 2004. While most girls her age were busy opening presents and watching holiday movies in their pajamas, Dukureh was getting married off to a much older man.
On her wedding day, Dukureh sat down with women from her community. It was a celebration of sorts, but they also had a message—to teach her about her sexuality in preparation for her imminent marriage. The conversation came with warning signs: They stressed tips to ease the pain associated with intercourse, but not the type of pain you're told about as a typical teenager. It wasn't until she was faced with the act itself on her first night with her husband that she realized what had happened to her: She had undergone female genital mutilation when she was just a baby.
Now in her late 20s, Dukureh has already accomplished more than most women will in a lifetime. Following a divorce from her first husband, she fought to get an education after no schools would accept her without the consent of a parent or guardian. Where others would have crumbled, she persisted. She eventually earned a bachelor's degree in business administration management and a master's degree in public administration. She married a man who understood and supported her. She welcomed three beautiful children into the world. After the birth of her daughter, she knew something had to change—and she had to be at the forefront.
She founded Safe Hands for Girls to educate her community on the misconceptions surrounding FGM. In 2014, she urged President Obama to conduct a study on FGM in the U.S., which drew worldwide attention to the issue. She organized The Gambia's first FGM Youth Conference—which led to successfully banning the practice in her country of birth. As a result, she was named one of Time's 100 Most Influential People. A documentary on her life called Jaha's Promise premiered at the Copenhagen International Documentary Festival in 2017. She now works with the UN as the first regional goodwill ambassador for Africa and is currently nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Her goal: to eradicate FGM entirely by 2030.
Read the brave journey of an incredible woman who is unafraid to fight tooth and nail to end a widespread, barbaric practice that affects millions of girls.
Ed. note: This story has sensitive content that might be triggering to some.
Dukureh was always aware that FGM was common in her community, both in Africa and in the U.S., but she was shocked to find out exactly how prevalent it is in our own backyard: "It's a bigger problem than we thought," she told MyDomaine. "Two days ago, I was at an FGM conference and met a white southern girl from Minnesota who underwent type three FGM, and I was shocked." Type three FGM is the most extreme and severe form of female genital mutilation. "It involves the total removal of the clitoris and both labia, as well as the sealing of the vagina so that there's only a small hole left to pee and menstruate." Around the world today, over 200 million girls and women are living with the effects of FGM. On average, 6000 girls are still mutilated every day.
Dukureh had to educate herself at 15 when she had to go through a second traumatic procedure at a clinic in Manhattan. "It was an opening process because when you're infibulated, you can't have sex," she explains. In a way, Dukureh was lucky to undergo the deinfibulation procedure in a clinic. "In communities where FGM is practiced, it's usually done by the same traditional midwives that do the original FGM, and it's normally done under no anesthesia," she says. "There are always risks of infections." But practicing this in a safe environment doesn't erase the pain and trauma associated with the experience. "When the deinfibulation process is conducted, a girl is told to have sex right away so it doesn't close back up while it heals."
Feeling disappointed and angry after the procedure, she found support and mentorship in Taina Bien-Aimé, executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women and a founding member of Equality Now. "Because of her, I am who I am. Because of her, I am alive," says Dukureh, who suffered from anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts after her arranged marriage. "She guided me as a 15-year-old, and she continues to guide me to this day. I couldn't be more grateful to have someone like her in my life. We need more women like her helping young girls because if I didn't have someone like Taina in my life, I wouldn't even have the strength to even think about doing any of this."
Through education and mentorship, Dukureh found the strength and confidence to educate herself on the negative repercussions of FGM around the world. "I knew that by having a career in the public light, other women could look at me and know that they too could make it." Though she saw larger NGOs in cities like London or New York shining light on the issue, she realized that real change would have to come from a more grassroots level. "I thought that the only way that the world would take notice was for me to put a face and a voice to the issue."
The birth of her daughter served as Dukureh's catalyst to end FGM in her family and her community. "It is important that women like me drive change in our community because the anti-FGM campaign has mostly been led by the West," she explains. "This made it difficult for us to achieve any progress in our communities because our parents felt people were coming after our culture and our religion. I felt like, as a woman who had undergone this practice and had to live these experiences, no one could deny my pain." She created Safe Hands for Girls as a support system for survivors—a movement that is now growing across the African continent.
Her journey into activism hasn't been without challenges. To this day, she still faces public insults and even death threats. "I was castigated by my own community," says Dukureh. "I was insulted publicly. I even received death threats at times. At the end of the day, this is what I signed up for when I decided to do this work. If we look through our history at the people who tried to make a change in their communities, my challenges are not any different from theirs. The reason why we continue to face these challenges and death threats is that we're actually seeing progress. If we weren't making progress, people would not feel intimidated to publicly shame us."
Her work in The Gambia is especially challenging, as it fosters a culture of silence where women are not traditionally educated or empowered to understand or talk about their bodies. One of the biggest misconceptions she faces both in her community and in the western world is the belief that the practice relates to the Islamic religion, when, in fact, it predates any major religion. The FMG National Group states that "the history of FGM is not well known but the practice dated back at least 2000 years." It is believed to have originated in ancient Egypt as a sign of distinction among the aristocracy. "People believe that FGM is a religious obligation when it's not. We want people to know that FGM has nothing to do with religion."
Banning FGM on a national level was the first step toward a larger goal, but the young activist says the core of the issue lies in public perception: "It was great for us to get the law in The Gambia, but the law is a tiny piece of what would actually get us to end FGM," she told MyDomaine. "Laws are there to be used as a prevention mechanism, but as we have seen throughout the continent, laws don't necessarily eliminate FGM right away. It was a good step, but now we are working in the communities to try and educate people and change their minds and hearts."
Working in conjunction with the UN has opened many doors for Dukureh in a short period of time. "Having access to an organization like the United Nations and being able to work hand in hand with them is something that will definitely help us get there faster," Dukureh explains. "In the past, if I needed to meet with a country's president, I couldn't. But with the United Nations behind me, it makes it easy and opens doors that wouldn't necessarily have been open."
This past International Women's Day, Safe Hands for Girls launched Big Sister Movement, led by women directly impacted by FGM. These brave women are coming together to ask for a pan-African ban on female genital mutilation by 2020 and completely eradicate FGM by 2030. As Patrick Farrelly, co-director of Jaha's Promise, told The Guardian: "It is astonishing that FGM is not the top priority for the feminist movement, the women's movement and the whole human rights movement. Two hundred million women and girls have been mutilated in the world today and it isn't top of any of those agendas."
Seeing the leaps and bounds Dukureh has already achieved in her four years as an activist, it's clear that an unprecedented momentum has been set in motion. Her undivided devotion is proof that by drawing attention to the cause and tackling it at the grassroots level, we can enact change to eradicate this barbaric practice in the next decade.