Dakar — Jaha Dukureh has taken her fight against FGM across Africa and the U.S., where she was sent at 15 to a marry a man she'd never met
Female genital mutilation (FGM) will not end unless women are lifted out of poverty and donors stop wasting money on ineffective aid programmes, said a prominent Gambian activist.
Jaha Dukureh is a survivor of child marriage and FGM, an ancient ritual which involves the total or partial removal of the external genitalia. An estimated 200 million girls and women have undergone FGM, which can cause serious health problems.
The 30-year-old has taken her fight across Africa and the United States, where she was sent at age 15 for an arranged marriage with a man she had never met. She left her husband shortly after and started campaigning for girls' rights.
"The best way women can stand up for themselves and their rights is if they are able to earn a little more," said Dukureh, who in 2013 founded the advocacy group Safe Hands for Girls, which works in Gambia, Sierra Leone and the United States.
Dukureh's activism was credited with helping persuade Gambia's president in 2015 to ban FGM, which three-quarters of girls in the tiny West African country undergo.
More recently, she started a community gardening programme for about 600 women in Gambia, which allowed them to earn a small income from selling vegetables - and to refuse to allow their daughters to be cut.
"I will always remember what one of the women told me. She said, 'Now I have a choice. I'm able to stand up and say no to certain things that I couldn't say no to before because I have money'," Dukureh said.
Dukereh - also a U.S. citizen - successfully campaigned on change.org for President Barack Obama to investigate the prevalence of FGM in the United States, where girls often undergo "vacation cutting" in their parents' country of origin.
FGM is often viewed as a religious, cultural or health issue, but one of the root causes is really poverty, she said, with African women often financially dependent on men.
"We don't have high earnings, jobs that can significantly contribute to our country's growth," said Dukureh, who was named by Time Magazine in 2016 as one of the 100 most influential people in the world and is a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador.
"Until we change that, we are not going to have a choice in what happens to our bodies."
World leaders have pledged to end FGM by 2030, but U.N. data published on Thursday showed rates in some countries were the same as 30 years ago, including in Gambia and Somalia, where the practice remains almost universal.
"It's not unrealistic to make those promises, but people need to put their money where their mouth is," said Dukureh, urging African states to invest in the issue with greater education, protection for at-risk girls and justice efforts.
As politicians tend to shy away from the sensitive topic of FGM, the responsibility falls on charities to do the work, said Dukureh.
But foreign donors often fund international organisations that do not understand the local context and need to shift their focus to grassroots work to make a difference, she said.
"I don't know why anyone expects change if that's the way the development sector is going to continue funding these issues," she said.
She is optimistic that survivor-led campaigns - like hers - will be able to convince more states to engage in the fight.
Dukureh's story is documented in the 2017 film, "Jaha's Promise" where she returns to Gambia to confront her father, politicians and the community over FGM.
In the documentary, she describes how she was subjected to the most severe form of FGM as an infant and had to undergo another surgery at 15 in order to consummate her marriage.
"When people listen to someone like me that has the lived experience, that has the grassroots knowledge that comes from my background ... I do see that it's working and I do see that people are getting it," she said.
(Reporting by Nellie Peyton; Editing by Katy Migiro. The Thomson Reuters Foundation is the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, and covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.