Jaha Dukureh is a 24-year old Gambian-born US –based anti-FGM campaigner. She is a survivor of FGM who had started her petition in the US with ‘Equality Now’ backed by The Guardian newspaper, calling for action on FGM from the Obama administration. While Dukureh was in London for the Girl Summit, the Obama administration announced that it would carry out a study into FGM and had set up a working group – a key demand of her campaign. In this interview, The Standard editor Sainey Darboe began by asking her why she brought her campaign to The Gambia.
I myself have been through FGM when I was about a week old and to me the campaign against it is something that is needed to be done. Even in the United States, it’s like a taboo and no one is willing to talk about it. For me, I felt like if I start to talk about it, a lot of other people will look up to that and know that we need to talk about these issues because they really affect us. I came to The Gambia to start this because it is where I am from which I am passionate about. I love that I’m Gambian and being here reminded me of the reason why I wanted to come-seeing the young people and how talented, knowledgeable and excited they are, to take this conversation on, I needed to be here and start this. This has made me happier than anything I have ever done before because just seeing how passionate these people I met yesterday are, was like a big moment. The questions and things they raised and hearing them say that people have been advocating against FGM in our communities and saying what works and what doesn’t. So hearing that they are not just here but they are listening, watching and know what is happening is huge.
You must have faced challenges granted the fact that FGM is a taboo subject in Africa and among African communities in the West?
Even from my own family, it is something that they want me to be careful about and want me to watch what I say. My dad told me that I have to be careful because this is something that people don’t want to talk about. It is something that the people do not want to address because they believe it is part of their religion and culture. But the reaction from the young people who came here to learn what the harmful effects of FGM are is encouraging. Last night they told me that ‘when we all go back home, we are going to form our own groups, we are going to have radio shows and we are going to do all of these amazing things’. These people came up with many ideas that I have never thought about. So the reaction has been good and I have had people come up to me and say ‘you are Jaha, we have been hearing or seeing you on BBC, we’ve seen you on Al Jazeera’ and all of these things are not just about that for me. For me I want to see my people asking some of these questions and they have started doing their own research. They want to do something and the Ministry of Health is here. We all have all these government agencies and this is the first time that these people are coming together to have something like this. That says a lot about our country and says that we’re finally ready. If we were not ready, we couldn’t have done this [meeting]. This also shows that we are ready to make changes and change is what we want to happen. I strongly believe that in less than 10 years, we will not be talking about FGM and it will not be an issue in this country. I think we are like the most advanced country in Africa just because of what I have seen so far.
Despite the vigorous campaign by Gamcotrap, young girls in The Gambia still undergo the practice .The circumcision of a two month old baby in Bakoteh, among others, is a case in point. Don’t you think FGM should be criminalised in The Gambia?
Absolutely! I think government needs to criminalise FGM in The Gambia and I also think we need to change our approach when it comes to advocating against the practice. For decades now, they has been a lot of organisations in the country that are advocating against FGM and working on the issue but numbers have not decreased that much. I think the young people are where the difference is and our parents because the focus has been on the older generation. When you focus on the young people, they are the new generation. We’ve also been through FGM and we can’t change that because we can hardly change our parents’ mindsets but the government should focus on the young people and educate them because our young people are so smart and knowledgeable. They are the future parents and they are going to be making those decisions for their families. They can even be the men in there [meeting], they are going to be heads of their families and they can decide their daughters are not going through FGM. Likewise the girls in there can also decide not to have their daughters go through FGM. They can go back to their communities and educate people and let them know what they have learnt here. That is why we are focused on the youth and together with the government and all other NGOs, we can come up with a plan. I know Gamcotrap has been doing an amazing job and they are partners in this event but I think we also need to shift our attention and be more youth-focused because they are the future. If we cannot end FGM on the past generations, we can focus on the present generation that have undergone FGM and focus on the ones that we should protect from going through this practice.
Persuading the government to do this is not going to be an easy task given the entrenched notions and beliefs in the practice. How do you plan to pull it off?
Absolutely! One thing I want to say is that we are not here to challenge the government, we’re here to complement the work they are doing and we want them to know that we want to work in partnership with them. This is a collaborative effort and if they don’t help us, we can’t achieve what we want. We are here to support and to drive the conversation that FGM is harmful and I think we need to work together with the government and members of the parliament. I am here until October 20 and I am thinking about extending my trip past that if I need to because I really want to meet with members of the National Assembly of The Gambia. I also do want to meet with the head of state and I do want to meet with everybody that I need to meet with to make sure that we start that process of criminalising FGM. If I have to stay in The Gambia for six months, a year, I’m going do that to make sure that I continue working with the youth and continue what I have started. Because this means a lot to me and I think we can do it if we keep up the momentum. We need to both empower and enlighten ourselves about the issue.
From what you have seen and heard, do you think there is sufficient political will on the part of the government to make sure that the practice is significantly reduced, if not eliminated?
Well, they made a lot of commitments when we met here yesterday because the permanent secretary at the ministry of youth and sports and the executive director of Women’s Bureau were here. They made commitments yesterday and we are here to be held accountable to that and we are going to make follow-ups to these commitments. It doesn’t necessarily mean there is a lot of political will because they didn’t feel like the people were ready but now that we are telling them that we are ready I think we should see some movement on the part of the government.
One does not need to be an expert on The Gambia’s socio-political landscape to know that the real movers and changers of public opinion are the Imams. Some of these respected Imams including the Imam of State House, Abdoulie Fatty claim that FGM is something that is Islamic. How are you going to change that?
I have heard Imam Fatty’s claims and I am not here to say that he is wrong. My dad is an Imam and he has the same beliefs as Imam Fatty and I respect whatever beliefs they have. But I think they need to understand because he [Imam Fatty] keeps saying that FGM does not happen in The Gambia. I went through FGM and what he is saying I am not going to say it’s not true because he is an elder and I respect him and everything he stands for. I went through the practice and he can’t dispute that and I am here to tell him that he needs to listen to us just as the same way we are willing to listen to him. We are not here to challenge them or to tell them they are wrong or lying. We just want him to give us the opportunity to educate each other on this issue. FGM is harmful, it affects us .He will know firsthand if he wants to listen or to be educated on what the harms have been on me. They think that all of this is coming from the West, and that people are getting paid to say this. I have never been paid by anyone to say that FGM is wrong. I went through the practice and I know how it affects me and if he needs me to sit down and talk to him about that, I am open to that.
Would you consider meeting other Imams and community leaders to sensitise them?
Like I said, if it should take me staying in The Gambia for six months, a year, or even if it means I move back home, I have decided to work with the Gambian youth. Even if I go back to the United States, I may come back in three months and spend a year here or forever working with people in my country. Almost 80% of us are affected by FGM and we need to make sure that our daughters don’t go through FGM. Even the Imams, I don’t think they know how much pain FGM inflicts on young people and I don’t think they understand the trauma that’s associated with it. We need to educate them and listen to them. All of them think they are right in their arguments and no one is giving each other a chance to come to sensible agreement. I think we need to give each other that opportunity.
You went to the US at the age of 15 under an arranged marriage. Is this going to be a component of your campaign?
It’s harder to talk about child marriage than it is to talk about FGM to me. When I got married aged 15, a lot of things happened and I think that is the reason why I am doing all of these. This is because of what I went through at a young age and knowing the pain that everything has caused me, I don’t want to see anyone go through it. It was easier for me to talk about FGM when it comes about my marriage in order for people to relate to me. I needed to be personable and people needed to relate to me on that level. I felt like it was okay for me to talk openly about my FGM struggles. But when it comes to my marriage, I am not too comfortable and I don’t want to go deeply into it because there are a lot associated with it and then people’s privacy like my ex-husband and his family and I respect all of that. At the age of 15 I did get married and it was hard and wasn’t something that I wanted. But it made me a stronger, better person, a better wife to my husband now and a better mum to my children.
So after ten years in the United States, what is it like coming back home on the back of such a high-profile campaign against some entrenched, harmful traditional practices?
On my way to The Gambia, I was nervous. I didn’t know what to expect, what the people are going to think of me and whether I am going to be accepted. The question that cropped up was: Are they gonna say she’s too Western because she has gone abroad and changed who she is? But when I got here and when these people started arriving, I became hopeful. I was bothered because I care about Gambians and I love being a Gambian and out of anything I do, I want to be accepted by my own people. So when I was coming I was thinking if I should get here and people don’t understand what I am doing. Being here and just seeing how happy and energetic the people are, I am so happy, excited and I don’t even want to go back. This is home!
What do you hope to accomplish at the end of everything?
At the end, I hope to come up with strategies and work with everyone who is involved in this and keep it going. I don’t want this to just be a conference and for everyone to go back to their respective regions and forget about this. I want us to stay connected and work. I was telling some of the participants yesterday that with the help of the government, I want us to open a huge women’s centre that would be a resource for women. If I get the opportunity to do that in The Gambia, that will be my next step. That will be a hub where we can advocate against FGM and other issues that are affecting young women here in The Gambia. With education and empowering our young women, and giving them the opportunity to be able to go anywhere in the world should be made a priority. When I went to the girls’ summit in the UK in July, all the other countries were there and for The Gambia it was only me and one member of my organisation. We were the only people to represent our country. I want to see us in other places of the world stage and I want Gambians to stand everywhere in the world to discuss issues. This is because we are talented and have the knowledge to speak.
What would be the pinnacle of achievement for Jaha as far as this anti-FGM campaign is concerned?
If we can get a national ban on FGM in The Gambia, that would be the biggest achievement. That is when Jaha can stand up and say yes, I have done something for my country.
Any last words?
Just thank you guys for having interest in this and it means a lot when the Gambian media is interested in what we are doing.]]>