Jaha Mapenzi Dukureh became a revolutionary at 15, when she was sent from The Gambia to the United States as part of a forced child marriage and learned that she had undergone the most severe form of female genital mutilation (FGM) when she was only a week old. Dukureh ultimately found herself fighting to enroll in a public high school without the support of a legal guardian when her marriage dissolved—but in 2013, she graduated from Georgia Southwestern State University with a Bachelor’s degree. That year, she launched a blog where she shared her own experiences with FGM and child marriage; that initial urge to tell her story ended up being the launching pad for Safe Hands for Girls, an anti-FGM organization.
In the years since, Dukureh has been nothing short of a force. Her pioneering work on FGM, which she decided in 2014 to pursue full-time, led the Obama administration to become the first in the U.S. to collect data on the scope of FGM and craft a strategy to end it. In 2015, that work led her back to The Gambia, where she formed a front line in the successful fight to outlaw the practice. The next year, she played a central role in convening the Summit to End FGM at the United States Institute of Peace.
Dukureh now serves as a lead campaigner in the End FGM Guaradian Global Media Campaign as well as a Regional Goodwill Ambassador for UN Women. In 2016, she was named to the TIME 100; that same year, it was announced that The Guardian was making a movie about her life. And this year, she was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Ms. talked to Dukureh about her nomination, her motivation and what’s next in her fight to change the world for girls.
You were recently nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize—congratulations!—for your work to end FGM. But that seems like it’s been a long time coming for you. Can you trace your journey as an activist for me?
I think personally for me it started with, my journey of learning that I went through FGM at the age of 15, and from there having my daughter—it made me realize that I don’t want my daughter to go through a lot of the things that I went through. I felt like the only way to make a difference was to break that culture of silence by speaking out against these practices and saying something about it and encouraging other people to do so.
I never thought in a million years that what I was doing at that time, by starting a blog, would turn into where we are right now as an organization—and I never knew that the world would even know who I am, not to talk about being nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
And not all people who go through FGM decide to take up this mantle. What inspired you?
I think for me, it’s not just my own journey—knowing how much I went through, and having a daughter, and watching her and knowing that that’s not the life that I want for her—but knowing that there are more than 200 million girls currently alive who have undergone FGM. Knowing that yes, I can protect my daughter, but who is speaking out for those 200 million women? For me, it’s the thought of that, and the thought of having millions of girls forced into marriages every year without their consent and without having any say in that—understanding their pain and understanding their suffering is one of the reasons why I felt that it was my moral obligation to say something.
Obviously, there is still a policy fight when it comes to FGM—there’s a groundswell movement to outlaw it elsewhere and better enforce existing laws around it. But there’s also so much cultural work left—we’ve done so much reporting on the idea that changing a law doesn’t necessarily end a practice. What comes next? How do we fight the culture war—and win?
I think it’s about educating people, and knowing that laws should be used as a prevention tool, but laws are not what’s going to get us to end FGM. It’s about creating new social norms in our community. It’s about educating the younger generation that, yes, FGM is a culture, but this is a culture that we should choose to leave behind—like we have see in the past with things like slavery and foot-binding.
Definitely! And so much of your work, too, has centered on how we support FGM survivors and build communities and spaces for them. How can policymakers and activists do right by those women and girls?
I think it’s about not seeing them as victims, but seeing them as people who are capable of making change in their communities and at the policy level. What we’ve seen in the past is having survivors of violence, and not just FGM, as photographs, with their stories are plastered everywhere—but they’re not seen as capable of making change or driving change, or being part of policy change and writing policies. So for me, that’s what my work has been about—getting survivors to be at the forefront of the campaign. For us it’s about not just implementing solutions in our communities, but being the solutions in our communities.
There’s also this very new conversation happening about FGM, child marriage, forced marriage in the U.S.—these are conversations that have been happening in the global community, but haven’t as much focused on what girls are going through here. How do we adapt these models to fit elsewhere?
FGM and child marriage are issues that effect girls here. We have to stop seeing it as a foreign issue, and seeing it as something thats effecting girls globally. I think that’s one of the biggest issues—it’s not their problem, over there. This is a human rights issue, it’s a woman’s rights issue, and that’s how we need to start looking at it.
You’ve already accomplished so much. What do you see coming on the horizon, and what keeps you moving towards that?
I think for me it’s the girls that I work with every single day, seeing the impact that our work has made and continues to make in the lives of girls. That’s the reason I can’t give up. If we can change our culture through those girls, we’ve accomplished everything. Our goal is not just to have wins here and there, laws and policies and awards. Our goal is to actually end FGM and child marriage in our communities. And the more we can do that, I think, that’s what we want to see. Because we know it’s possible. And it’s happening.