When Jaha Dukureh was a child growing up in Gambia, she was subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM), a brutal and widely condemned practice where parts or all of a girl’s external genitals are cut out as a cultural rite of passage. When she was 15, Dukureh’s father sent her to the United States for an arranged marriage to a man more than twice her age.
“I was born in the Gambia, and I moved to the U.S. when I was a teenager to get married—I got married in New York, I lived in the Bronx,” Dukureh told Glamour in New York last week. “It was different then—it was winter when I came, so it was really wet outside with the snow. I had to wear long coats, it’s something I wasn’t used to. I hated the cold weather because all my life, I’d lived somewhere that always felt like summer. So coming to place like New York was really different for me—it was something I’d never seen and something very out of my comfort zone.”
But it wasn’t just a big city and a new environment that felt wrong to Dukureh. “Being 15 years old and marrying a guy who was twice my age who I’d never met,” she says, “I don’t think it was anything that I wanted to be in. As soon as I got here, all I wanted to do was go back home.”
Today, Dukureh lives in Atlanta, is a personal banker at Wells Fargo by day—though she is currently on leave of absence—and spends every moment of her free time working on Safe Hands for Girls, an organization she founded dedicated to creating awareness around Female Genital Mutilation and to rally against its practice. Safe Hands For girls also provides community and institutional education programs as well as support for and by FGM survivors.
“I think the circumstances that brought me to this country were never right,” Dukureh tells Glamour. “But this country has also given me so much. I am able to sit here and talk to you because of this country. I am able to get an education because of this country. I am able to be empowered and know my rights and stand up for my rights and have a voice because of this country. So, in a way, it’s a blessing that I came to the U.S.. It still doesn’t make it right, but it was a blessing.”
As a married teenager in New York, Dukureh felt trapped—but a chance meeting with a feminist activist changed her life and trajectory. “I reached out to an organization here in New York called Equality Now and they were able to help me,” Dukureh says. “The woman who was running the organization at the time, who still lives in New York, is Taina Bien-Aime—she’s the biggest feminist you will ever find. She’s just raw and she believes in women and women’s empowerment. Just looking at someone like her, I just thought: That’s what I want to be.”
Over the years, Dukureh worked closely with Bien-Aime—attending Equality Now’s events, participating in rallys and demonstrations. “Because of doing all of that, I unconsciously learned a lot about what I can do and how I can give back,” Dukureh says. “One thing I realized that there are all these [FGM] organizations, but there’s not a single organization that’s led by survivors of these practices—people who can speak to it, people who can go back into their communities and say, ‘We know exactly what this is because we’ve been through it.’ And that’s when I decided to do something and start a support group to empower other young girls—girls in America who have been through this practice or who are at risk of going through this practice. I figure that I was saved by someone, and I can do the same for someone else. If Taina wasn’t in my life, I would have been dead by now, because I didn’t want to live.”
Based in Georgia, Safe Hands for Girls offers after school programs for young African girls who find the community mostly through word of mouth—and the demand is high. “Our program has grown so much we don’t have the capacity to take in everyone,” Dukureh says. With offices in Gambia as well—where “most of the activities happen,” including lobbying the government, hosting workshops, media appearances, a weekly radio show, and institutional educational programs in schools.
For Dukureh, who makes quarterly visits to her Gambia offices, her relationship with her family has been a stronghold in her fight against FGM—even though it was her family who subjected her to the practice to begin with.
“Every child wants their parents to be proud—no one wants to feel like a disappointment,” she says about her relationship with her father (her mother passed away before she was married). “Over the past three years, when I took a leave of absence from my job, he thought i was wasting my life away. ‘You don’t have a job anymore, you’re always on the go, you’re never with your husband and kids, you’re wasting your life,’ he told me. ‘You’re never going to end FGM,’ he said.”
But last week, when the government in Gambia finally passed a law banning FGM, her dad came around.
“He was the first person who called me,” Dukureh says. “Did you hear? And I was like, ‘Yes, dad, the President called me before the announcement.’ And my dad said, ‘OK, maybe you’re not wasting your life after all.'”