They say talk is cheap and no one knows that better, perhaps, than 26-year-old Jaha Dukureh.
For years, the Atlanta mother of three crisscrossed the globe talking about genital mutilation, trying desperately to raise awareness about the practice, hoping against hope that someone, somewhere would put an end to it once and for all.
But year after year, after every International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilations, attendees would disperse, go back to their lives, and that would be the end of it. Nothing happened until Feb. 6 and the annual United Nations gathering reconvened.
By 2013, Dukureh had had enough. She quit her job and followed her heart.
“My husband pays the bill and I wander around the world talking about vaginas,” she said laughing the other day.
Her work, though, is hardly anything to laugh about or that simple.
Female genital mutilation is a violation of the human rights of girls and women worldwide. The practice is so primitive, so incomprehensible that it renders you almost speechless.
Thank God, Dukureh was willing to tell her truth; but let me come back to that.
Last year, Points of Light awarded Dukureh with it’s Daily Point of Light Award, L’Oréal Paris named her one of its Women of Worth and – drum roll, please – she is listed today among Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world.
News of her selection, she said, “was surreal.”
“It still is. You look at the list and the people on there, I don’t belong in a list like that. I still can’t wrap my head around it. I didn’t do it for the rewards. I want people to care more about this issue. If we were cutting our daughter’s arms off, there would be an outcry around the world. For us not to do anything about the 200 million women whose genitals have been cut is not right.”
That’s precisely why Dukureh’s work deserves recognition. She isn’t just about talk. She’s about taking action.
If you’re wondering why she cares so much, here it is.
Dukureh is herself a victim of female genital mutilation, once as a week-old infant in Gambia and again at age 15 in New York, where she had migrated for an arranged marriage to an older man.
“I lived it every day,” she said.
Because of the damage done to her genitalia, she had to undergo surgery and unspeakable pain just to consummate the marriage. The union didn’t last.
Dukureh enrolled in high school, and after graduating in 2007 she married Hajie Dukureh and moved to Atlanta. In 2013, while working as a personal banker at Wells Fargo and working to raise awareness about FGM, she earned a degree in business administration management from Georgia Southwestern State University.
Frustrated by the lack of action from the annual Zero Tolerance gathering, Dukureh telephoned her mentor.
“As someone who has gone through this, you’re the best person to speak about the practice,” the mentor told her. “If you speak people will listen.”
Dukureh has been telling her story ever since, speaking in villages and towns throughout her native Gambia, before the U.S. Congress, in communities across the country, hoping to spare other girls the pain she endured.
She is also founder of Safe Hands for Girls, an Atlanta-based international nonprofit that works to raise awareness about FGM and support survivors with legal aid and connects them with referral services and support groups around the country.
“The hands of the people who do the cutting are not safe,” Dukureh said. “When young women come to us for sanctuary or anything, we want them to know they’re coming into safe hands.
“We work both here in the U.S. and Gambia to raise awareness. We go to universities where there are large immigrant populations and conduct workshops and to hospitals to train doctors at hospitals how to care for women who have gone through the practice. We teach women how to stand up for themselves and their rights.”
While it is unclear how many women and girls in the U.S. have undergone genital mutilation, a study released in January by the Centers for Disease Control found that the number at risk jumped from 168,000 in 1990 to 513,000 in 2012.
FGM involves partial or total removal of the clitoris and labia. Depending on the form, it can be as simple as shaving off the clitoris or as extreme as completely sealing the vaginal opening so only a small whole is left to allow for urine and menstrual flow.
“It’s something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy,” Dukureh said.
Two years ago, Dukurek took a leave of absence from Wells Fargo to head up Safe Hands full time, becoming the first person to successfully lobby the Obama administration gather data on the practice and create a plan of attack to end it.
In 2015, she helped persuade the government in her native Gambia to outlaw the practice.
FGM can lead to severe bleeding, complications during childbirth, infertility, severe pain during sex, and recurring infections. In some cases it is fatal. And unlike male circumcision, it also inhibits sexual pleasure.
“It’s a God given right for women to be able to enjoy sex and have control over their bodies,” Dukureh said. “When you go through something like this, that’s taken away from you.”