When Jaha Dukureh was a week old, she survived female genital mutilation (FGM) in The Gambia.
When she was 15 years old, she was forced into marriage and sent to New York to be with her husband.
On her wedding night, she was cut again to allow for the consummation of the marriage. The second procedure is common for women who have already undergone the most severe form of FGM.
Today, she fights against the practice, which the UN estimates affects 200 million girls and women globally.
In the United States, Dukureh spearheaded a campaign which led the administration of former President Barack Obama to conduct further research into FGM.
As a UN Goodwill Ambassador against FGM and the head of Safe Hands for Girls, an NGO supporting survivors in Africa, she now campaigns in The Gambia, where she lives today.
Her activism in part led to Yayha Jammeh, former president, banning FGM in The Gambia in 2015. Although violations carry penalties of $1,050 or a three-year-prison sentence or both, there have been no prosecutions to date. According to human rights activists, Jammeh’s removal brought ambiguity to the FGM ban, and there are reports of a resurgence.
Dukureh, a mother of three named in 2016 by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people, wants to ensure FGM and child marriages become horrors of the past.
On the occasion of the International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation on Tuesday, she told Al Jazeera her story…
On surviving FGM…
“I found out I had undergone FGM at the age of 15.
“I went through the most severe form, which is type 3 FGM; this is when women and girls are infibulated and have to be de-infibulated before any form of penetrative sex can occur.
“I didn’t really understand what FGM was and what I had gone through until then. I underwent FGM at one week old, so I had no memories of it. It wasn’t until I got married that I fully got to understand the extent of the practice on me.
“Because I know what it feels like to live with FGM, I can advocate better for the millions of girls like me who have to live with the practice, and do everything I possibly can to make sure that this number doesn’t get any bigger.”
“I started this work when I had my daughter, Khadija. I knew there was no way she would ever live the life I lived. But it’s also not just my daughter. Every day, 6,000 girls are cut, and no one speaks out for those girls.”
On the myths surrounding FGM…
“The biggest myth is that it’s a religious obligation only practised 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.
“A 26-year-old who couldn’t have kids underwent FGM because she was told that it would solve her problem. They cut everything, even the urethra, and she ended up with fistula. These are the kinds of stories we explain, and people might be able to connect with that.
“Communities need to learn from someone they know won’t lie to them.
“It’s about bringing people into the community who can help us understand.”
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.
“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.”
On why The Gambia’s law is not enforced…
“It is not only the responsibility of the parent to go to jail. Neighbours who know and don’t say anything, shopkeepers who sell blades to cut girls, they [should] go to jail.
“The only loophole [in the law] is that it doesn’t address cross-border issues, so the law doesn’t apply if you go to Senegal. But it is one of the best laws against FGM that I’ve seen in Africa.
“There have been reports from hospitals about children having suffered from FGM and the police refusing to cooperate. They are hesitant to enforce the law because they think it’s a family [or tribal] issue. So we focus on police training. Many didn’t know about the consequences of the practice.
“We want this new government to push harder. We can train [police] officers, but if the president doesn’t make a broad stance, people will think that he’s okay with it. The Gambian government hasn’t done much; people are changing their own minds.”
On punishing parents…
“We are not trying to jail every parent in this country, but we want parents to be aware that we have laws protecting girls here.
“If we had parents cutting children’s arms in the US, we would have an outcry in the world and people would arrest them.
“If you beat your child, you will be arrested.
“FGM is child abuse.
“If parents have to go to jail for us to be FGM-free, that’s how it should be. Our parents don’t hate us, but it’s about right and wrong, and FGM is wrong.”
“FGM has not been eradicated in The Gambia, but we have come a long way. It was difficult to talk about [ending] FGM; now it’s a national movement.
“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…
“To this day, we continue to meet some resistance, but it’s not as bad as it used to be.
“In The Gambia, the problem is that many people who practise 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.”
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.”
“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.
Fatma Naib reported from Sweden. Azad Essa reported from Banjul, The Gambia and was supported by the International Reporting Project (IRP).