Jaha Dukureh

Ending female genital mutilation

Jaha Dukureh has overcome a lot. She was mutilated as a very young baby and at 15 she was trapped in a forced marriage in a foreign country. But now, still in her twenties, she made the Time 100 List of the world’s most influential people for her campaign to end female genital mutilation. ‘I needed to tell people the truth.’

When she was just one week old, Jaha Dukureh went through what almost all Gambian girls go through: female genital mutilation (FGM). A traditional ‘cutter’ removed her clitoris and labia, and then sewed the opening together. When the man she was forced to marry tried to have sex with her, she experienced terrible pain. ‘That’s when I realized what FGM was,’ she says in the inspiring documentary Jaha’s Promise, shown at the Movies that Matter Festival where Dukureh is a special guest. ‘And that’s when my horror started.’

Stand up and do more
When she was 8, Dukureh’s marriage was pre-arranged with a man in New York, and at 15 she was brought to the United States to fulfil her marital obligations. After courageously walking away from her marriage, ‘everyone was looking at me like I brought shame on my family’, she says. At 17, she moved to Atlanta and remarried. Although this marriage was also arranged, it is ‘a happy one’, she says. In Atlanta Dukureh went to college, found a job and became the mother of three children.

When her daughter Khadija was born in 2010, Dukureh vowed that she would not be subjected to FGM. But that was not all. ‘It wasn’t enough for me to just say that my daughter is not going to go through this,’ she says. ‘I realized I can stand up and do more for other children. And that’s what I did.’

Back to Gambia
In Atlanta Dukureh founded Safe Hands for Girls, an organization working to eradicate FGM. But to really fight the problem, and at the same time come to terms with her own troubled past, she had to go back to Gambia. There she confronted religious leaders and her own family, and raised awareness among rural communities. ‘I needed to tell people the truth, that this is not a religious obligation. It is just people’s selfish need to control women.’

Her campaign brought the Gambian president to criminalize FGM in 2015, but Dukureh keeps working to actually get this ban implemented. She has an impatient streak in her: ‘I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life,’ she says. ‘I literally want us to end FGM so I can go on and do other things. And I know that’s possible.’