Cape Town — Jaha Dukureh and her organisation Safe Hands for Girls have set themselves a date to end a war that has been going on for 15 years - ending female genital mutilation (FGM). Dukureh was born in The Gambia, survived FGM when she was just a week old, and was forced to marry a man many years her senior when she was only 15 years old. Years later, living in the U.S. with her new family, she decided to end the practice that became a cultural norm. She started handing out pamphlets against FGM, and when the campaign was up and running, returned to The Gambia, where she approached her father and community members to end the cutting and forced marriage of girls.The campaign made an impact - one that was bigger than the Safe Hands For Girls founder had imagined. Her father said he won't cut her half-sister and President Yahya Jammeh banned FGM. But that was 5 years ago, now Jammeh is no longer in power and FGM is still practiced in The Gambia.AllAfrica spoke with Dukureh about her new campaign against FGM, the victories that Safe Hands For Girls celebrated and why her frustration with the campaign is building in the first part of this two-part interview...
I think things are different with this current president (President Adama Barrow). I have to be honest about this issue - I don't think it is an issue that he cares about, I don't think he has any interest in even talking about this issue or doing anything about it. Whereas with Jammeh, one of the most brutal dictators who killed a lot of people, and FGM was something that you couldn't discuss on the radio, something that you couldn't talk about on TV. But we young people, we started doing this campaign and I remember when I first decided to come back to the Gambia. A lot of people thought I shouldn't be doing the work in The Gambia because Jammeh could potentially hurt me or even kill me. Even donors wouldn't give me funding because they thought it was too much risk to take during Jammeh's time.
And when Jammeh left, everyone thought this was a Jammeh law and it went away with him, but our Parliament did pass this law. It should have been up to our government to ensure that the law continued being enforced since it's a Gambian law.
But I am proud that we did not just rely on having the law but we continued our work by going into the communities - some of the most remote areas - continuing to have these conversations. We know that people's minds are changing because a law isn't going to change a cultural norm like FGM. It is up to people to know that it is harmful and to make a conscious decision. The law was always a prevention mechanism, but it was never something to be forced down on people. As activists, it was up to us to make to make sure we are educating young people, that girls are aware of their rights.
So, yes, even though we feel that the new government has failed us when it comes to female genital mutilation, we are still doing our part and we are not waiting for them to make it right. The Gambia is a small country, and I believe that if any country is going to end FGM, it's going to be Gambia because I see the progress every day.
There was a young man that I had a conversation with a few weeks ago who told me that he lives in one of the communities that has the highest prevalence of FGM. He has seen that FGM is dying a natural death. It's not just because we have a law, but because of the awareness and more people engaging.
There are other countries on the continent where FGM is banned. Which countries are you focusing on?
Liberia. Before President Sirleaf left office, she declared a temporary ban. These bans are important; Africa has beautiful but when do we actually implement those laws? Unless you have a government that is willing to push. FGM is still happening in countries like Gambia and Senegal, and in some places it is even on the rise.
The law has to go hand-in-hand with the implementation as well as the community work. And that's what happening in The Gambia. It is not only me working in my country. There are many organizations in The Gambia that have that are doing this work, that are continuing this work. So when we are out in the field, in the communities, we hear about other groups on the campaign trail. These organisations are all working at the same time - the whole country is being tackled.
All the practitioners of FGM are women? So would you say that it would be easier to convince men that FGM is wrong because of the patriarchal society in which we live?
I think that it is a multi-stakeholder thing because if FGM has no benefit on the the life of a woman and benefits men. I think having more young men being okay with marrying uncut women is a huge step. If we have more men who are saying no to this practice then there's no reason for women to continue practicing it. If men are educated and fathers are making the decisions that they don't want this for their daughters, we also strongly need men.
You've been a UN Goodwill Ambassador for the past two years now - what difference has that made to your campaign against FGM?
"It gives me visibility on the global stage and at the end of the day I'm based here in Gambia and I'm an African girl and having an institution like the UN have you as a Goodwill Ambassador, you are able to access people in higher places that influence certain decisions, especially politically. In this case it has made a huge difference in my work. But again, at the end of the day, the visibility is not what I care about. It is not what drives me. What drives me is is change in my community. It's good to continue raising awareness at a higher level but in all honesty that is not what I care about.
I'm out there and the world hears my voice and my story but there are 200 million women living with this practice. I am just one of them, and this work is bigger than me as a person. The work that I am doing ... there are thousands of women in Africa who are doing really, really good work. We should have thousands of Jahas, if not hundreds of thousands, so we can amplify their voices, that we are pushing out there, but the only way to do that is to invest directly in those communities.
When it comes to FGM, I am tired, Right now I know that I sound frustrated but I am actually frustrated with the way this campaign has been going. Everyone agrees that FGM is wrong. But what are we actually doing at the community level to ensure that this practice does not continue happening? That's where we are failing the world.
Yes, this campaign has been running for more than 15 years and it is still being fought, just like we are still trying to end violence against women. Where is the progress, why are we still fighting this battle?
It's not actually hard to end FGM if we do it the right way. But the problem that we have is that people want to fund organisations that are based in New York and in London to end FGM when those people don't understand our communities. they don't understand the respect and putting our people first. You can't impose your ideas on people and expect to see change. If you want to end FGM - because these are deep-rooted, traditional issues - you have to do it in a culturally sensitive way and you have to do it with love, respect and understanding. And until the world realises this, we are not going to get anywhere, and until we start supporting those organizations that are based in the community, that have the trust of the communities, that have the authenticity to to lead their own people to that change, you're not going to have anything.
As a young African woman, I get pretty emotional sometimes when I talk about these things because every day I'm reminded of the fact that that I'm African and I'm black and because of where I come from, I can't be trusted. If I was a white woman or white man, the world would support me more than they are doing now.
I've realized that I need to rally behind Africans and we need to do this for ourselves because no one else is going to do this for us. It's about us and our communities and it's about our people.
Tomorrow is International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, and you're launching a new campaign to highlight your fight against the practice. Why do you think this new campaign, which is being described as bold and innovative, is going to make an impact?
We partnered with McCann (American global advertising agency network with offices in 120 countries) where I have a good friend Julian, one of the most amazing creative minds. I called and told him about my frustrations and that times have been hard. I've had to work various side jobs in order to sustain my organization. And even though I'm out in The Gambia, I've been consulting for the World and just all over the place. Julian came up with the idea to do a major advertising campaign for Safe Hands For Girls. The advert shows people who chose to do body modifications, like tattooing and splitting their tongues. But not the girls who have been forced into FGM.
What do you need to move your campaign against FGM forward?
We want to partner with major statistics bureaus so that we know the progress of our work. I don't want to continue doing our work when it doesn't have any result and I'm doing it for the rest of my life. I'm still young I just turned 30. I care about ending FGM but if I have not making any progress and things are not changing, then this is not what I want to continue doing. We want to raise enough money to analyse if we've truly made progress. We want our work to be back by evidence. I don't want to sit here telling people that I think FGM is ending when when I don't have anything to prove it. It's very very important to me that that the study is conducted, to not only do that research, but to see what why people's minds are changing, what led to the progress that we are seeing are in the Gambia.