Jaha Dukureh, still in her 20s, is an anti-female genital mutilation (FGM) activist from the Gambia. She has always fought an uphill battle: a survivor of FGM herself, she was sent to the United States as a teenager for an arranged marriage and now has burdened herself with the task of “truly end[ing] FGM” through her organization Safe Hands for Girls. She sat down with The Politic to talk about her work, her worries, and her love of tabloids.
The Politic: Can you tell our readers about the state of FGM in the U.S.?
Jaha Dukureh: We are at a tipping point when it comes to FGM and how we address FGM not only in the United States but globally, because for the first time the conversation is led by women who are directly impacted by the issue—not someone speaking on their behalf, but them actually leading the conversation and the solutions.
How do you think being a FGM survivor has shaped how you advocate and how people receive you?
It gives me a deeper understanding of my community and why FGM is practiced. I’m not an outsider to that. Not only that, when it comes to the way people have received me: you can’t deny my story, you can’t deny what I’m talking about because I’m speaking from lived experiences. I think it makes the movement more authentic touches people more [when you’re hearing the story from] a real person. Rather than hearing about someone’s story, you’re actually hearing from a real person who went through FGM. I think it has really helped.
Was there much of a discussion before survivors became their own advocates?
No. When people spoke about FGM it was from the context of “those people from Africa,” and “barbaric,” and this and that, so it wasn’t from our perspective. It was different, and as a result not a lot of people listened or cared. I think once survivors started coming to the scene, it changed things and it changed it for the better.
Can you tell me more about how it’s changed for the better?
For the first time, not only for countries like the United States, but even in Africa, our communities started listening to us. Our fathers started understanding our pain and our struggle with this issue. We broke that culture of silence. It actually opened up that platform that allowed us to build movements that are in fact ending FGM in Africa and elsewhere.
What do you say to apologists who argue that we need to view FGM in a “culturally relativist” light—that to fight against it is imposing Western cultural ideas?
When it comes to looking at these issues, we have to look at it from right and wrong. Clearly, we know that FGM has no benefit whatsoever for the young girl. If anywhere else in the world, parents were cutting any body parts of their children, we would have an outcry. Simply because it’s in Africa doesn’t mean that we should make it their business and ignore it.
As someone who has gone through this practice, sometimes I find it offensive that people think that our wanting to end this is imposing Western ideas. It feels like they’re totally neglecting our pain, what’s happening to 200 million women globally. Every single day, 6,000 girls continue to go through this. Somehow, we still think it’s okay to say that this is just their problem and we can’t impose our views on them, when globally we’re waging war on [other] countries every single day—I mean let’s think about our country for instance (I’m as much American as I am Gambian). We’re waging war on places like Afghanistan and Iraq for other things, but we’re saying that somehow when it comes to cutting the body parts of women, it’s their culture and we should respect that.
How do you think the current political climate—i.e. the Trump administration—has affected your work?
What’s happening with the Trump administration is not any different from [the apathy] we [usually] see. It just shows the value society as a whole places on women. You look at how sexual violence is being neglected. I think personally, Trump being elected hasn’t helped our work in any shape or form because we’re not working with the Trump administration. During the time of Obama, we had at least somewhat of a relationship with the Obama administration. We felt like things were moving in the right direction and we felt like we were getting the U.S. commitment to end FGM not only in this country but globally.
But ever since Trump became president, all of that has just somewhat gone quiet. It hasn’t hurt our work, but it hasn’t helped us. We don’t have any working relationship whatsoever with the U.S. government.
I’ve been living in the Gambia since June of this year and I think [the Trump administration is] probably one of the reasons why. I feel like if I tried to work with the Trump administration on this issue, one of the things that would happen is [that] they might try to use it as an anti-Muslim and anti-immigration issue, and I can’t afford that. So that’s part of the reason why I’ve totally stayed away from trying to reach out.
How does advocating in the U.S. compares to advocating in Europe or in Africa?
I think being in the Gambia is the most impactful thing for me because I’m on the ground; I’m seeing the change. I’m actually working in the most remote areas in Africa, which gives me the strength to continue doing what I’m doing. A lot of the time when I’m in the United States or I’m in front of Congress or in front of donors or in high profile events, those things are fancy and it’s not really my place. I do that in order to raise awareness about our work and about our organization and in order to get resources, but what helps me continue and not give up is the interaction with the communities. It’s seeing the young girls that I’m doing this work for, and that’s how it’s different.
Can you tell me more about the specific mechanics of your advocacy in the Gambia?
In the Gambia, we run a lot of programs. We have a school outreach program and we have a mentorship program for girls and we go into schools and form school clubs. We have these Safe Hands clubs across the country where young girls are trained to become advocates within their own community and they’re organizing their own events and their own school programs from drama competitions and things like that.
We’re working with women’s groups within the community as well, where they’re deciding for themselves that they want to abandon FGM after they undergo our training. Recently, we had 650 women from one particular village decide that they’re not going to cut their children after learning about this and willingly coming to those terms. I think for us, it’s using trainings but also informing people about the policy work. Our work led to the Gambia banning FGM, but not a lot of people know about the ban or the law, so we go to that community level to educate people about the laws and inform them what the repercussions are if the break the FGM law or the child marriage law.
Getting to know the community is getting to know what their fears are when it comes to their daughters, getting to help them, showing them the reason why education is so important, and showing them that their daughters can be as influential in the community as their sons can be. [When we educate communities, we’re] using a holistic approach and looking at the life of a girl in our community as a whole rather than focusing on certain aspects of her life.
What’s the hardest thing about your work?
The conversation between FGM and religion has continued to be one of the biggest challenges that we face. A lot of people believe that FGM is a religious amputation, even in the communities that we work in. Trying to break those myths and having those conversations can get really really intense because people are really really passionate, especially when spirituality comes into the equation.
Do you find that talking to men about FGM is very different from talking to women?
Absolutely. Most of the challenges that we face are from men. I think lately I’m beginning to lose tolerance when it comes to addressing [them]. Every time we go into a community, the women see our point and they totally agree with us, but it’s constantly the men that are telling us, “Bullshit.” And I’m like: “You’re a man and you are so privileged to not understand what your wife is going through. For you to sit there and object to everything that we are doing is so ridiculous.”
Does Safe Hands work with other women’s rights or women’s advocacy organizations?
We’ve done a lot of work with Equality Now, an international advocacy organization that’s based in New York. Even in the Gambia we work with a lot of grassroots organizations. We support them in building their capacity. We’ve recently launched a new movement called the Big Sister movement, which is an Africa-wide movement where we’re trying to get grassroots women from all over Africa to work together to get FGM eradicated.
When your advocacy isn’t going well, how do you motivate yourself?
I just go to the girls that I work with. They feed my soul. Whenever I’m down, that’s where I go to get my strength. Spending time with our girls just has a way of just bringing you back to life. We work with some of the most amazing girls that have so much potential. I remember right before I went to Gambia I would tell my team that I’m going to quit Safe Hands—I’m going to find a job that’s going to pay me money because I’m not about this broke life—but every time I come into contact with our girls, it’s a different story.
What do you think is the most important thing you’ve accomplished so far?
It’s the girls that I work with and the accomplishments that they’re making. When they started working with me, [they were so] shy [and] now [I see] all these things that they are doing. I feel like at the end of the day, that that’s lasting. The impact that we’ve made in their lives is something that you can never take away from them. It’s not like the awards or any of those things that are publicly out there. For me, [the most important thing] is the work that we’re doing behind the scenes that no one knows about. That’s what I’m most proud of.
Where do you get your news?
[laughs] Oh my God. I’m a sucker for gossip sites. I don’t know why. Media Take Out is one of them. TMZ is another one. I don’t—I know it sounds so bad, but yes, that’s where I get my news.
What place would you most like to visit?
Oh my God, that’s another good one. My dream place to visit is Bora Bora.
If you weren’t in your current job, what would you be doing?
I think I’d be running the world.
I think you’re getting very close to that.
[laughs] Something like that.
Which living person do you most admire?
What keeps you up at night?
It’s failing at this work. I believe that we can truly end FGM and I don’t think my mind is ever at ease because I have so many things that I want us to do. The potential that we may not actually get it done is definitely something that worries me. I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life. I literally want us to end FGM so I can go on and do other things, and I know that it’s possible.
What is your advice for college students?
I think they should just believe in themselves and know that their voice is the biggest thing that they have. They should never underestimate the power of their voice. Use it.