Jaha Dukureh says people in The Gambia who practice FGM believe it is a religious obligation [Courtesy: Jaha Dukureh]
When Jaha Dukureh was one week old, she survived female genital mutilation (FGM).
When she was 15 years old, the child was forced into marriage, sent to New York from The Gambia to be with her husband.
On her wedding night, she was cut again. The second procedure is common for women who have undergone the most severe form of FGM, allowing for the consummation of marriage.
These traumatic experiences have prompted Dukereh to fight against FGM, a practice the UN estimates affects 200 million girls and women globally.
|Dukureh says resistance to ending FGM has always been fierce, but attitudes are changing [Courtesy: Jaha Dukureh]|
At 28 years old, she is now a UN Goodwill Ambassador against FGM and founder of the Safe Hands for Girls NGO which provides support survivors in Africa.
She spearheaded a successful campaign in the US, which led the administration of Barack Obama, former president, to conduct further research into FGM.
Dukureh then took her campaign to The Gambia, where she lives today.
Her activism, which was captured in the award-winning documentary “Jaha’s promise”, in part led to The Gambia banning FGM in 2015.
The mother of three, named in 2016 by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people, works with grassroots movements.
She wants to ensure FGM and child marriages become horrors of the past.
As the International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation approaches on February 6, 2018, Dukureh told Al Jazeera her story…
On the myths surrounding FGM…
“The biggest myth of FGM is that it’s a religious obligation only practiced by Muslims and poor Africans that don’t know anything.
“[Another myth is] that women who experienced FGM are not capable of leading efforts against it. I think it’s a misconception common in the West – they tend to want to use us as photo ops and put our stories out there. They don’t see us as people that can write policies and be part of those policy changes, or have a seat at that table when they are making decisions about our lives.”
On moving back to The Gambia…
“I decided to move back to The Gambia because we had a change of government which saw the end of Yahya Jammeh’s longtime rule.
“He banned FGM and many people felt the FGM ban was his law, and he should leave with it.
“This is why we had to go back to the communities and convince people that this was a law that was created for them, a re-energise the campaign.
“Our work is needed now more than ever. We don’t want FGM to go underground.”
|A man shows the logo of a T-shirt that reads ‘Stop the Cut’ during a social event advocating against harmful practices such as FGM in Kenya [File: Siegfried Modola]|
“FGM has not been eradicated in The Gambia, but we have come a long way. It was difficult to talk about [removing] FGM, now it’s a national movement.
“We have been doing work in school systems and women’s groups. We do a lot of work with the media. We have a huge culture of silence in our community. Collecting human stories and allowing women to share their experiences has helped us break the silence.”
On facing resistance…
“The resistance has always been fierce. To this day, we continue to meet some resistance but it’s not as bad as it used to be.
“Most of the resistance is from religious leaders. In The Gambia, the problem is that many people who practice FGM believe it’s a religious obligation.
“More and more religious leaders are coming forward and saying there is no benefit of FGM. That is why they are supporting the ban. Things are changing in the Gambia, but not as fast as we want it to be. It’s better than it used to be.”
On the importance of respect…
“Respect is what has been lacking for years when tackling FGM.
“It is important for activists to be careful with the media and not to sensationalise FGM and survivors.
“I tell them to take care and not open up too much because you can easily lose yourself.
“It is crucial for us survivors and people who are involved in this work to say ‘no’ sometimes to protect ourselves. Standing in your truth and never ever letting anything get you away from you is important.”
On whether FGM will be eradicated by 2030…
“I don’t know if FGM will be eradicated by 2030, but I do believe it will end in our lifetime.
“In the Gambia, I don’t believe it will be an issue in the next 10 years.
“Globally, I don’t think there is enough will and political commitment towards ending FGM by 2030.”
“We started the Big Sister Movement, a group of survivors across Africa who work together. Our target is the African Union (AU) and Africa as a whole.
“We want the AU to put more pressure on member countries. Many countries in Africa have laws against FGM but are not implementing them.
We are asking the AU to pass a resolution by 2020 which makes FGM illegal in every country within the continent.”
On how people can support the movement to end FGM…
“They can support us. We were all at one point outside the continent.
“We need to re-evaluate how we do things. We can’t continue putting all the resources in organisations that are in New York and London, and expect to make a difference in a village in Gambia.”
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Follow Fatma Naib on Twitter: @FatmaNaib