Jaha Dukureh will always remember the year she turned 15, for many reasons. It was the year her beloved mother died, and in the midst of that grief, the year she was sent to New York to enter into an arranged marriage.
It was a marriage that had been arranged back in her native Gambia when Dukureh was 8 years old, and when she arrived in the Bronx, her husband was in his 40s.
Mired in grief, grappling with a new culture and struggling to connect with her new husband, Dukureh found that worse was yet to come. She found sex excruciating with her new husband.
“Firstly, he couldn’t penetrate me, and then there were a few very, very painful days of trying,” Dukureh reveals.
Within time, the terrible truth came to light: that Dukureh had undergone female genital mutilation (FGM) when she was a week old. Doctors told her that she had undergone its most extreme form, type 3 FGM, where the clitoris and labia are removed before the girl is stitched together. A New York doctor opened her vagina, instructed her to have sex that day to avoid complications, and Dukureh admits that ‘it was like I went through the FGM all over again.”
“FGM is where the vagina is stitched up to only allow for urinating and menstruation,” she explains. “It prolongs menstruation and leaves a woman exposed to many urinary tract infections. It’s carried out for different reasons: it is believed to make women more ‘clean’; it’s done for chastity reasons. Each culture has its own reason.”
In 28 countries in Africa – as well as some in the Middle East and Asia – girls are told they’re more beautiful if they’re cut, and that they’re more likely to get married. At least 200 million women and girls worldwide have undergone FGM, according to figures from Unicef.
An estimated 3,780 women have already undergone FGM (or female genital cutting) before moving to Ireland, with a further 2,639 girls estimated to be at risk of undergoing the practice.
When asked if it’s possible that FGM could be carried out in Western countries like Ireland, Dukureh notes: “It could happen. When people come to a new country, they don’t let go of their culture, or their identity. Where I live in the US, I have heard that there are cutters working there.”
Realising that she had undergone FGM, recalls Dukureh, predictably brought feelings of shame and anger.
“I was so young that I don’t remember going through the practice, but lot of internalisation went on,” she recalls. “Having American friends and not knowing how to talk about my body made me ashamed of my African culture.
“I think I felt it was something taken without my right, and it was something I could never get again, and that in itself was hard for me with live with. I was angry with my parents, that wouldn’t have trusted that I wouldn’t be promiscuous. There was a lot of self-hate and my mother was no longer there to answer questions. It wasn’t easy for me to talk to my father (her father was a respected imam, or religious leader, in the community) about my body. I felt abandoned, and that my whole life was over.”
A chance meeting with the feminist activist Taina Bien-Aime, from Equality Now, changed her life. Unbeknownst to her, the genesis of her own activism was being sown. After the breakdown of her marriage, Dukureh divorced her first husband and remarried, moving with her now-husband to Atlanta. With a loving partner fully supporting her desire for an education, she finished high school and put herself through college, and started work as a bank teller. In three and a half years she had been promoted three times. All the while, she began to realise that young girls were missing so much of the normal girlhood experience because of FGM.
It was after the birth of her second child (her first daughter) in 2010, that she began thinking about campaigning against the worldwide practice of FGM. Along with other survivors, Dukureh set up a foundation, Safe Hands For Girls, and currently tours schools and community centres to talk about the dangers, and effects of FGM. A mainly word-of-mouth organisation, demand for Safe Hands’ services are high in the US.
Thanks to Dukureh’s tireless activism, Gambia finally passed a law banning FGM in 2015. The mission to eradicate FGM by worldwide is moving apace. In Ireland, the National Steering Committee on FGM led by Akidwa is calling on the government to develop an action plan to ensure proper protection and support for girls and women who have been subjected to or are at risk of FGM.
And while policy change and reasoning with religious and cultural leaders is a huge part of the job, Dukureh understands that it’s as grassroots level that change can be more easily affected.
“It’s hard but I know there’s huge power in our voice,” she says. “We need to tackle it in people’s heads, and need to tackle the way they view women. It’s about getting people to come around to our point of view.”
Dukureh’s activism also meant going back to Gambia and having difficult conversations with her father. Initially, there was a backlash when she spoke out, and critics had targeted her family, saying – wrongly - that she wanted to get people locked up for practicing FGM and, by extension, to break up families.
“I don’t think (my father and I) had any conversation when I realised what had happened (at 15), and at the beginning, I concluded that he had his beliefs and I had my beliefs,” says Dukureh. “But now, he is one of the biggest feminists I know.”
For now, the woman Time magazine has called one of the most influential people in the world continues her mission. A film about her life, Jaha’s Promise - directed by Irishman Patrick Farrelly - premieres later this month in Denmark. In the meantime, there’s the not-insignificant task of ensuring that laws that have made FGM illegal are also enforceable.
“When the girls who continue to be at risk are finally safe, that’s when I’ll stop,” Dukureh smiles. “Then, I’ll find something else to do that I’m equally passionate about.”
* Jaha Dukureh is in Ireland for the World Congress on Women’s Mental Health, co-hosted by NWCI and Trinity College, which runs in the RDS, Dublin until March 9. For more information, see nwci.ie
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