From the outside, the immigrant family looks no different than any other about to take the oath of U.S. citizenship this recent Tuesday in Atlanta.
Jaha Dukureh, 25, has called the United States home since she was 15 years old, and now, with her husband looking on and the youngest of her three children waving an American flag, the young woman from Gambia is beaming as she prepares to pledge allegiance to the flag she has come to hold so dear.
But behind Dukureh’s brilliant smile and quiet elegance lies a tale of horror almost too disturbing to imagine.
Dukureh is a victim of female genital mutilation — the idea of which many find so unbearable, that they turn away, cringe, shudder or refuse to allow themselves to comprehend.
Yet it is a topic, Dukureh says, that has to be discussed in order for the practice to end, and she faces it head on, unafraid.
Jaha has arrived in The Gambia yesterday to attend a one-day workshop slated for November 6 that her non-profit organization, Safe Hands for Girls dedicated to fighting FGM in the country, has organized.
She is expected to stay for another five-day anti-FGM campaign starting November 16 and also organized by her organization which hopes to explore means on intensifying FGM-awareness media campaign in the country with hope to ending the practice.
FGM is still intense in The Gambia and according to the recent Demographic Health Survey carried out by the Government and its partners; the prevalence of the practice in the country still stands at 74%, representing a decline of about only 4% from the last decade.
The progress is slow, activists in the country had argued, while calling for a law to ban FGM.
Meanwhile, Dukureh was subjected to female genital mutilation in Gambia when she was a little more than a week old. She came to the United States at the age of 15 for an arranged marriage to a much older man. Only then did she come to understand what had happened to her. Because of the damage done to her body, Dukureh had to endure terrible pain, and undergo surgery to be able to consummate that marriage. The marriage didn’t last.
The World Health Organization says female genital mutilation is recognized internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women. “It reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes, and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women.”
Dukureh has made it her mission to tell her story in hopes of sparing other young girls from a lifetime of pain. She has spoken before the U.S. Congress, the United Nations, in communities across the United States, and in villages and towns throughout Gambia.
When asked why she feels compelled to speak out, her answer is easy.
“Well, somebody has to do it,” Dukureh says, without a trace of anger or bitterness. “Slavery ended because someone stood up. Foot binding used to be a thing in China, but they were able to end it in 10 years because they stood up and said they wanted it to end. … It takes one person to stand up. Then other survivors come and speak about their experience, and that number will continue to grow.”
Dukureh’s story also caught the eye of women’s cosmetic giant L’Oréal Paris, which has featured her in their “Women of Worth” campaign.
“We are building a movement,” she declares.
A monumental victory
For Dukureh, it is family that drives her; specifically, thoughts of her daughter and the future ahead of her.
“Some of the most hurtful things that happened to me, happened because no one spoke out for me,” she says. “If I stay silent, my daughter may face the same fate I faced. But if I speak up and give face to these issues, chances are my daughter will never have to experience that.”
“But saving my daughter isn’t enough, it’s all the little girls out there like her.”
One of her greatest challenges was returning to the Gambia last year to convince her father, a powerful imam who advocated for the practice, that the time for change has come.
“It was the hardest things I have ever done,” Dukureh says. “Because I respect my dad a lot and I want him to be proud of me.”
Her father listened to her and agreed that her baby sister, who was born during her visit, would not be subjected to genital mutilation.
The victory was monumental.
“As a result of this conversation with my dad, I was able to save my younger sister, and my brothers are not going to subject their daughters to FGM.”
The conversation “ended up giving my dad an opportunity to understand me, and to know where I was coming from wasn’t about disrespecting him or his religion,” Dukureh says.
What’s next after the American Dream
Dukureh is in the process of returning to the Gambia again, this time to implore President Yahya Jammeh to enforce laws that not only make FGM illegal, but are enforceable.
Her efforts to raise awareness have gained so much attention, that she is now the subject of an upcoming documentary by award-winning filmmaker Patrick Farrelly, who, after meeting Dukureh, was so impressed that he wanted to tell her story. He and his team have been documenting her life for the past year to bring more attention and awareness to her cause.
In the citizenship ceremony, Dukureh leads the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance, takes the oath and watches while a video plays showing the natural wonders of the United States.
A performance of “America the Beautiful” brings Dukureh to tears.
As she listened to the song, “I thought about my journey and what I have been able to accomplish. The fact that I am now an American citizen and can say what I want, speak freely about these things, and know I am protected by law… it’s great. It’s emotional. It’s the American Dream. It’s that success that all immigrants dream of when they come to the U.S.”
With one dream realized, she’s ready to achieve the next.
“I want to see FGM ended in my generation. It’s not an easy dream, but I think we can do it. … It’s going to take a collective effort. This is not just a one person issue. It’s not a one-country issue. It’s an issue for humanity and it affects us all in one way or another.”