Jaha Dukureh knows what it’s like to be "cut," which is how she refers to the ritual of female genital mutilation. She knows because it happened to her — twice.
The practice, often abbreviated as FGM, has affected some 100 to 140 million girls and women worldwide, and is most prevalent in Africa and the Middle East. But it also happens here in the U.S. As part of the gruesome tradition, some or most of the female genitals are removed — including the labia and clitoris — and the vagina may be partially sewn up.
Born in Gambia, Dukureh was only a week old when she was subjected to it. But it wasn’t until she was sent to the U.S. at 15 to marry a man in his 40s — a man she’d never met — that she discovered she was unable to have sex. Unfazed, her husband sent her to a doctor in the African immigrant community where they lived in New York City, who was used to reversing these kinds of surgeries.
"That second cut — that’s the cut I remember," Dukureh told Refinery29. "Like any injury down there would be, it was very painful."
Less than a decade later, Dukureh founded Safe Hands for Girls, the only survivor-led organization devoted to raising awareness in the United States and abroad about the dangers of FGM. Now a mother of three, Dukureh is finally seeing the fruits of her labors. A few days before Thanksgiving, she met with Gambian cabinet members to talk about the issue, and shortly afterward the president of Gambia banned FGM, a major milestone in a country where 76 percent of women and girls have been cut.
Then, on December 1, she was one of 10 women named a L’Oreal Paris Women of Worth — an honor that came with a donation of $10,000 to Safe Hands for Girls. Refinery29 talked to Dukureh, now 26, about her experiences and what it feels like to know that she is making a difference to women and girls around the world.
...Parents [in the U.S.] either send their girls back home for something called 'vacation cutting,' or find a way to make FGM happen here.
Jaha Dukureh: "Even at a young age, I was very different from other girls. I grew up in a conservative Muslim home, as a member of the most conservative tribe in Gambia — the Sarahule — where it’s traditional for women to stay at home and not go to school or work. But I’d do things that none of them did, like go to parties, or speak out about girls’ and women’s rights, or about the fact that I didn’t want an arranged marriage.
"Maybe it’s because my parents sent me to Catholic school; I was exposed to children with different backgrounds, and different ideas. I also read a lot, and looked around at what was taking place in our community, saw how women were treated, and I knew it wasn’t right. My parents tried to change me, to get me to stop speaking out, but it never worked."
What was like to come to the U.S. at 15 to be married to a man you'd never met?
"Well, imagine if you were sent away from home, so young, to be married to a much older man, knowing that you had to spend the rest of your life with him. To this day, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever experienced."
What about when you tried to have sex with him for the first time?
"When I was married, of course my new husband tried to have sex, but I couldn’t do it, because of the FGM. To him, the situation was normal; his attitude was that I could go to the doctor and have the problem fixed. As for me, I was shocked, I was scared, I was worried, and I was mad. I didn’t know why anyone would do something like this to anyone, and I wished my mother were still alive because I would have asked her, 'Why would you do this to me?'"
"I lived with my husband for four months, then I ran away to stay with an uncle and aunt who lived in the Bronx. I was only 15, I didn’t want to be with this man, and I didn’t want to do the things he wanted me to do. Plus, he wouldn’t let me go to school. I don’t think anyone could endure that for a week. I endured it for four months."
Are you able to enjoy lovemaking now? Is that possible for women who have undergone FGM?
"Honestly, it’s different for every woman. Some who have been cut say they have no issue with sex. Some say sex is always painful. Not everyone is cut the same, so sex isn’t the same."
How did you start Safe Hands for Girls?
"I had the idea when I was still in college. I’d been talking and learning about the issue of FGM, and one thing I learned was that there wasn’t a single survivor-led organization working to end the practice. That’s when I decided that there needed to be a nonprofit led by someone from the inside, who could speak directly to women and have an impact that an outsider wouldn’t have.
"Safe Hands didn’t officially become a nonprofit until I was 23; it started in my living room, where I’d meet with women in my community. We all attended the same mosque; our children went to school together. Those meetings were really liberating. It was the first time I realized that there were others who felt the way I did, and who’d had the same feelings and experiences. From there, Safe Hands expanded to offer after-school programs, a support group for women, and workshops in local universities."
That second cut — that’s the cut I remember. Like any injury down there would be, it was very painful.
"Just because people emigrate to the U.S. doesn’t mean they let their rituals from back home go, and the same is true for FGM. As a result, parents here either send their girls back home for something called 'vacation cutting,' or find a way to make FGM happen here."
Can you talk about any of the girls you’ve helped?
"I can think of one girl, who is now 13, who was going to be sent to Gambia for FGM. Then she heard about our after-school program, and she told her parents, 'If you do this to me, I’ll call the cops.' Before, she was very shy; she didn’t have the confidence to defy her mother and father. Now, partly as a result of the work she has done with Safe Hands, she is the vice president of her school, and, more important, she has realized the power of her own voice."
"November [of 2015] was very big for me. First of all, I decided that I would spend my birthday in Gambia, and that one of the things I wanted to do was to meet the president. I want to change the laws there regarding FGM, so part of my plan was to lobby the government, file a petition with the courts, and get them to make FGM illegal.
"I knew the president was touring around the country, so I decided to chase after him, following him first to one village, where I wasn’t able to see him, then to the next village. When he found out that I was around, he asked some cabinet members to sit with me and see what I wanted. So I talked with them, then sent a proposal explaining why it was so important for them to take action against FGM."
Did you eventually get to meet the president?
"Well, two days later, I was back home and I got a telephone call. That’s when I learned President Jammeh was about to ban FGM in Gambia. So I hopped on a plane and finally got to meet him. He asked me why I was so against FGM, and I told him about my experiences. He said that he wouldn’t want his daughters to go through that, and so he wouldn’t allow it for other Gambian girls and women. He also promised me that he would be a father figure in my life. When my staff told my father that the president had adopted me, my father immediately said, 'Did you tell him you already have a dad?'"
You've also been working on increasing President Obama’s awareness of this issue, right?
"In 2014, I filed a petition on Change.org asking the government to do a study to see how many women in the U.S. have gone through FGM. More than 221,000 people signed, and the Centers for Disease Control is now going to do the report."
You’ve accomplished amazing things, but have you ever felt like giving up?
"Emotionally, this whole experience has been difficult and it continues to be hard. To this day, people in my community tell me that I’ve sold my soul to the West, that I’ve forgotten Islam, that I’ve been brainwashed and don’t know who I am. I get these accusations online, and recently someone told my husband that I’ve sold my religion because of money. None of that is true. I’ve used my entire 401(k) for the Safe Hands campaign, and I don’t get any money for what I do. When I was working as a banker, I was getting promoted every six months, but I quit that job to devote more time to Safe Hands. I haven’t forgotten who I am. My identity is strong. I love who I am, and I love what I’m doing."
Some who have been cut say they have no issue with sex. Some say sex is always painful. Not everyone is cut the same, so sex isn’t the same.
"Meeting the president of Gambia. That, and something my dad said to me recently. Every time I’d visit, he’d say, 'What’s the point of what you are doing — you’ll never make a difference. You’re wasting your life.' But when the president banned FGM, my father said, 'Maybe you’re not wasting your life after all.'"
If you could tell women in their 20s one thing you've learned about what it takes to create change, what would it be?
"Never allow others to influence how you think, or to tell you what you can or cannot do. People will always say negative things, but when you believe in yourself, it doesn’t matter what the rest of the world thinks."
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.