Gambian works to protect girls from cutting ritual

Jaha Dukureh advocates for girls on two continents: Africa, where she was born, and North America, where she became a U.S. citizen. And the Nobel Peace Prize nominee says she has just gotten started.

The focus of her work is ending a practice that involves altering or injuring female genitalia for nonmedical reasons — known as female genital mutilation, or FGM. The procedure can lead to serious health problems, including infections, infertility and even death.

Dukureh, who is herself an FGM survivor, founded Safe Hands for Girls, a nonprofit in Atlanta focused on stopping the procedure and supporting fellow survivors. In Africa, Dukureh’s work in The Gambia helped former President Yahya Jammeh ban the controversial practice in 2015 and led to her nomination for a 2018 Nobel Prize.

FGM is concentrated in 29 countries, mostly in Africa and the Middle East, but it is also practiced in diaspora communities in other parts of the world, including the United States. The United Nations estimates that 200 million women and girls living around the world have experienced the procedure.

Uniformed schoolgirls walking down rural dirt road (© Siegfried Modola/Reuters)
Students arrive at the start of a social event discouraging harmful practices such as female genital mutilation at the Imbirikani Girls High School in Imbirikani, Kenya, April 21, 2016. (© Siegfried Modola/Reuters)

While she was a teenager, Dukureh discovered she had undergone FGM when she was a week old. “I think I was angry,” Dukureh said. “I was out of words because I didn’t understand why anyone would do something like this.”

She exited the marriage that her family had arranged for her to a much older man when she was 15 and living in New York. She moved in with relatives in the New York area and finished high school there. She relocated to Atlanta for college and married another man before opening her nonprofit in 2013. Giving birth to their daughter had inspired Dukureh to channel her anger into activism. “I didn’t want her to experience a lot of the things that I experienced,” said Dukureh, who has returned to The Gambia to live.

The most important thing to remember about Dukureh’s struggle is that she helped outlaw FGM in The Gambia, says Norwegian politician Jette Christensen, who nominated Dukureh for the Nobel Peace Prize. “She is living proof of how the belief of a single person can cause a single person to change the world,” Christiansen told the Norwegian newspaper Bergensavisen.

This article was written by freelance writer Lenore T. Adkins and originally published March 20, 2018.