Yasmeen Hassan, Global Executive Director, celebrates Jaha Dukureh as part of Equality Now’s 30 for 30, featuring 30 women and changemakers who have played a key role in making equality reality as part of our 30th anniversary celebrations.
Content warning: Brief discussion of suicide
Born in The Gambia, Jaha was the daughter of a powerful Imam and a longtime advocate for female genital mutilation (FGM). Like all women in her family, Jaha was subjected to FGM as an infant. At 15, Jaha was sent to the United States to marry a much older man. After her wedding, Jaha was subjected to horrific abuse by her husband and had to undergo surgery to try and correct some of the damage done when she was cut.
I’ll never forget the first time I met Jaha Dukureh. When Equality Now first came to know Jaha, she was just 15 years old and ready to end her life. At such a young age, Jaha was already a survivor of both child marriage and forced marriage and had moved to the US following her mother’s death that same year.
“I remember feeling silenced and alone,” Jaha told the audience when she was honored at our 2016 Make Equality Reality Gala. “The pain was almost too much to bear.”
In 2013, the same year she graduated from college in the United States, Jaha established Safe Hands For Girls, a nonprofit organization that works to end FGM, child, and forced marriage and to support survivors. Since then, Safe Hands For Girls has grown from strength to strength, just like Jaha herself.
I remember Jaha saying back in 2016 that Equality Now helped her to “Find [her] activism.” But from the moment I met Jaha in New York I, like so many others since, was in awe of her bravery and her fortitude. Jaha is a force to be reckoned with, and that is something that has always been true.
Jaha’s advocacy has been crucial to the tremendous strides made for survivors of FGM in the US and around the world in recent years. In 2014, she started a Change.org petition to then-President Obama to investigate incidents of FGM in the United States, culminating in the 2016 Summit to End FGM at the United States Institute For Peace.
She was part of the effort to ensure that the United States enacted a federal law to make it illegal to transport young girls abroad to be subjected to FGM, and in The Gambia, Jaha helped to advocate for legal reforms that saw the government enact a total ban on FGM.
Her work has also helped to institute change even closer to home. When one of her father’s wives gave birth to a daughter, Jaha successfully convinced her father and her family not to subject the baby to FGM.
Jaha’s star power has helped to spread the word about the dangerous reality of FGM across the globe. In 2018, she was appointed as UN Women’s first Goodwill Ambassador for Africa, and she has been named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People, and as one of the 100 Most Influential Africans by New African Magazine. In 2018 Jaha was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Last year, 2021 saw Jaha take on her potentially most ambitious role yet when she declared herself a candidate for President of the Gambia.
The work I’ve been fortunate enough to be part of at Equality Now is indebted to survivors like Jaha for sharing their stories and to Jaha herself as the trailblazer she is for all she has done to make the world a better place for women and girls. Jaha likes to say that “We’re just one generation away from eradicating FGM.”
With voices like hers, I think there’s tremendous reason to believe that goal is possible.
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