Standing up to unspeakable truth

When Jaha Dukureh started Safe Hands for Girls in 2013, she wanted to create a space where women like her — survivors of female genital mutilation — could support each other.

Today The Gambia native is a renowned anti-FGM activist determined to eradicate the practice by 2030.

About 200 million women worldwide have undergone FGM, which involves the partial or total removal of female genitalia, as a religious obligation or cultural rite of passage. And an estimated 6,000 girls are cut every day. In the U.S., FGM has affected more than half a million women and girls, who have either covertly undergone the procedure here or been sent back to their home country for what is known as “vacation-cutting.”
“It’s still a hush-hush situation that nobody wants to talk about,” says Jaha.

Yet Safe Hands for Girls is breaking that culture of silence. In 2016, the same year she was named to Time magazine’s list of the 100 Most Influential People in the world, her nonprofit helped organize the first-ever U.S. Summit to End FGM in Washington, D.C. It is now working alongside Big Sister Movement, a global group co-founded by Jaha, to host Africa’s first summit at the end of the year.

“When people meet me, they think that I’ve been doing this work for longer than four years,” says Jaha, 27. “Even I sometimes find it hard to believe how far we’ve come. I never envisioned we would be an international NGO the way we are functioning now.”

Alone and devastated
Jaha was only a week old when she underwent the most extreme form of FGM in her home town of Gambissara. Yet it wasn’t until she was sent to New York at 15 to enter an arranged marriage with a man in his 40s that she realized what had been done to her when consummating the marriage proved impossible. A doctor ultimately had to cut her open again, ordering her to have sex within 24 hours or risk complications.

While she does not recall the pain of going through FGM as an infant — “The only painful part is knowing something was taken away from me that I had no control over, no say in,” she says — she still struggles with the trauma of her experience as a teenaged bride.

“It was hard for me because I had a lot of questions and I didn’t know why this happened. My mother was not alive at the time and it was not a conversation I was able to have with my dad,” says Jaha, who lost her mom to cancer a few months before her marriage. “I had to make sense of this all by myself and I didn’t have any support.”

Salvation through knowledge
Hungry for an education, she begged 10 different high schools to accept her before the 11th agreed, allowing her to enroll without parents or a guardian.

“I knew it was the only way I could help myself. It was the only way I could help others,” says Jaha. “That gave me an outlet to cope and survive, knowing that there was light at the end of the tunnel.”

She eventually divorced her husband and moved in with family in New York. At 17, she consented to a second arranged marriage, this time to a younger, supportive Gambian man in Atlanta. Today, they have a daughter and two sons. Jaha also has her college degree, which she completed while working full-time.

The power of storytelling

She started Safe Hands for Girls determined to spare her daughter Khadija from the pain she went through. But what began as a small group in her living room quickly evolved to a movement working to end all forms of gender-based violence against women, including child marriage, through education, advocacy and youth-led campaigns.

“We are working at the highest level to change policy but also at the lowest grass-roots level, working with women in communities, working with doctors to treat these women in a culturally sensitive manner, creating safe spaces where women can come and talk about these issues without being judged,” says Jaha. “It’s everything I wanted when I was growing up. Everything I needed this organization is providing that.”

Its power, she believes, comes from being survivor-led.

“(The survivors) are the true change agents when it comes to FGM,” says Jaha, whose own story is the subject of the documentary film “Jaha’s Promise,” released last year. “They can change the minds of their fathers, their community leaders, their religious leaders, even their circumcisers.

“When you have a real person and a real voice, there’s no way to deny that this is happening.”

Consider that her own father has become an opponent of FGM and that in 2015, FGM was banned in The Gambia two days after she met with former president Yahya Jammeh.

“I couldn’t believe it,” says Jaha. “He was one of the biggest dictators in Africa. He’d never spoken about FGM in the 22 years he was president.”

Lighting the way forward

While those victories help propel her mission, it is the women walking beside her who keep her going.

“I’ve made a lot of sacrifices, like the time I spend away from my children. I’ve lost a lot of friends. I’ve been humiliated a lot of times by strangers who have called me names and know nothing about me,” says Jaha. “But there is so much hope and faith in this work. There are so many people and young women affected by FGM that are rooting for us and wanting to see us succeed.

“I feel we’re so close I can’t give up.”