Atlanta-based activist and founder of Safe Hands for Girls, Jaha Dukureh, was circumcised at one week old. Here, she shares her story—and explains why it’s so important we end the practice for good.
The anti-FGM campaigner has been named one of the world’s most influential leaders by Time magazine this year alongside John Kerry, Angela Merkel, Aung San Suu Kyi, Bernie Sanders and Christine Lagarde.
Read her story as was told by herself:
I was born in the Gambia and pretty much raised in the Gambia. I had, I would say, a normal childhood. I grew up in a tribe called the Serahuli tribe; we’re known as very religious and very conservative—the most conservative families in the Gambia. My childhood was very normal with my siblings. I was raised by my mom and dad and I moved to the U.S. at the age of 15 to get married after my mom passed away.
Female genital mutilation (FGM) is part of our tradition, but I didn’t really know what it meant until I got married at 15 and couldn’t have sex. I was suffering from the most severe form of FGM, Type 3 FGM, where your vagina is sealed. I couldn’t have sex until I was deinfibulated, when that seal is removed in order to have sex.
Virginity is very, very important in our tribe and control of women’s sexuality is something that’s very important to our people. I think for them it’s about chastity, it’s about keeping us clean. In other traditions it’s different. It could be a right of passage, it could be about women being more clean, it could be the myth that if you’re not circumcised you can’t deliver a baby. It’s a lot of different, weird traditions throughout various countries.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m not whole. Mentally, that’s how it affects you. Physically, you’re more prone to infection because of all the scar tissue.”
I went through it when I was about one week old, so I have no recollection of the procedure. For all the girls who are aware of going through this practice, the trauma and the PTSD affects them. You saw your genitals being cut off and it’s something you live with for the rest of your life.
Even for someone who went through it as a baby, just knowing that something was taken away from you without your consent is something you continue to suffer from as a woman. Sometimes I feel like I’m not whole.
Mentally, that’s how it affects you. Physically, you’re more prone to infection because of all the scar tissue. It affects your sexual health because if your whole clitoris was taken off, obviously you don’t have that same sensation that other women have.
All my sisters before me went through the same type of FGM. My oldest sister was in New York at the time of my marriage and she said, “We probably need to take you to a doctor to remove that seal in order for you to have sex.”
The day my sister told me what that meant, I ran away from the house and roamed around the Bronx for a few hours until I realized I had nowhere else to go but back home. I went back home and the next day they took me to a doctor.
“People think I’m going after other people’s culture and religion, but that’s not what this is about. It’s about right and wrong, and FGM is clearly wrong.”
When I had my daughter, it wasn’t enough for me to just say that my daughter is not going to go through this. By protecting my daughter, I realized I can stand up and do more for other children. And that’s what I did. I started a support group in my living room with other woman who have experienced FGM.
I would advise them, we would talk about it, we would talk about sex, we would talk about different issues that we were having. That eventually translated into Safe Hands for Girls. We are a survivor-led organization fighting against FGM based here in Atlanta as well as in the Gambia.
We do a lot of advocacy work throughout the country. The Population Reference Bureau and the Centers for Disease Control did a study last year and found that more than 500,000 woman are either at risk or are currently living with FGM in America.
We can end FGM in our generation if we all work together, towards a common goal. We are working with young people and other survivors in various countries in Africa. We organize workshops and training for young people on ways they can use the same model we used to get laws passed here as well as in the Gambia.
We’ve managed to get this on the agenda of politicians in the U.S. and we’re making sure every country is doing something to end this. We want to make sure that by 2030, FGM is ended globally.
A lot of the time, people think I’m going after other people’s culture and religion, but that’s not what this is about. It’s about right and wrong, and FGM is clearly wrong. It’s something that affects the health of women, so I don’t understand why anyone would be against what I’m doing, but they are.
But that’s their problem to deal with. We know what we’re doing and what we want, and I feel like we can make it happen. I’ve learned not to worry too much about what people think of me, because if I do, I’ll go crazy.
It is still difficult. It’s the hardest thing that I’ve done, because we’re talking about my own vagina, and as a mother, as a wife and coming from the community that I come from as a Muslim woman, it’s something that I’m stigmatized for, it’s something I’m called out for. I’m insulted for it.
But it’s a small price to pay to end something like FGM. Every time I think about giving up and every time I think about not doing this work, I get an email from a girl who has either gone through this or who has been saved because of the work that I do. It reminds me why I started this and why this needs to continue.
My daughter has become this fierce young woman. Everyone thinks she’ll be more than I am, and I believe that as well. I didn’t realize that this would happen, but my children don’t think anything is impossible.
When you ask my daughter Khadijah, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” the first thing she tells you is “President.” She does that consistently. She doesn’t have any other career aspirations; the only thing she thinks she wants to be the President. It’s really, really amazing to see that in my six-year-old.
Go to safehandsforgirls.org to join the fight to end FGM for good.
Source: BAZAAR Bridal