Globally, at least 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone some form of female genital mutilation (FGM), a blanket term for a practice that most commonly involves the partial or total removal of the external genitalia, including the clitoris.
FGM takes place mainly in some 27 African countries, and in parts of Indonesia, Yemen and Iraqi Kurdistan. In some countries, the practice is near universal; 97% of 15-49-year-old women in Somalia have undergone FGM. While the practice is in decline worldwide, current projections suggest that 63 million more girls could be cut by 2050.
Jaha Dukureh, CEO and Founder of Safe Hands for Girls, underwent FGM when she was only a week old. Born in the Gambia, she was later sent to New York to be forcibly married at the age of 15. Since 2010, she has campaigned tirelessly to raise awareness of FGM in a policy climate that had long ignored the plight of adolescent African girls.
Dukureh’s work earned her a coveted spot on TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2016, and a new role as the first ever Regional Goodwill Ambassador for Africa at UN Women. In light of her leaked nomination for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, Apolitical spoke to Dukureh about what policymakers worldwide are getting wrong in their advocacy efforts—and how they can change.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
You have spoken out at length about your own experience of life after FGM. Do you think policymakers place enough emphasis on lived experience when devising solutions?
Normally, survivors of issues are seen as victims, which often means that policymakers don’t see us as capable of tackling the problem; they would rather import solutions than let us create them. We aren’t just photo-ops: we can drive change.
When you enter a room as a survivor, the way people treat you is patronising, to say the least. But as we’ve seen over the last years, the solution to ending practices like FGM is by getting people who are directly impacted by the issue at the forefront of the campaign. Just look at Kenya: today, around 21% of women undergo FGM, down from around 38% in 1998. That movement was largely led by African women.
Fundamentally, when the priority is changing hearts and minds, it has to be those women leading the movement. You can’t deny their pain, struggles or experiences.
Does the international community accept that change needs to come from within the societies affected?
The international community started taking notice of the issue when survivors started speaking out and made the movement their own. We forced the international community to listen. There is some recognition now of what is possible when we create that platform for women to be agents of change in their own community – but not yet enough.
The Gambia banned FGM in 2015 yet the practice continues. What’s happening there?
A lot of people felt that the law, which was introduced under President Jammeh, was implemented by a dictator. As a result, they didn’t respect it. There was a backlash and I worried that the ban would look like it was Jammeh’s alone. I moved back to the Gambia for that reason.
We soon realised that the law was a top-down approach, when what we need is a grassroots change – which we are seeing.
Even in the few years since I have returned, the situation has changed drastically. On the sixth of February, thousands of people marched through the streets of Banjul, the capital, opposing FGM. We couldn’t have even imagined that a few years ago because of the amount of resistance, but this time, everyone was cheering us on. That’s a huge step for a country where 76% of girls were mutilated only 10 years ago.
I don’t think it’s because of a law that people are changing in the Gambia, I think it’s multiple programs across the country that continue to raise awareness on these issues and keep them at the forefront of the media. That’s why we’re seeing a cultural change.
How can governments and policymakers support meaningful social change beyond the legislature?
We believe that, until governments commit finances to ending FGM, they will never take the issue seriously. They might have robust laws on paper, but are they actually implementing them? It shouldn’t be the responsibility of the West to help us eliminate these practices: our countries have to take it more seriously and include it in their budgets.
How can governments in the Global North meaningfully support campaigners in the Global South?
It’s important to work with communities and women impacted directly: the North should be used to leverage resources and support for women on the ground doing this work, such that it becomes a real partnership – a real collaboration.
Giving money to organisations that are based in New York or London, then having them come here and tell us how to end FGM has been a major problem for far too long.
Governments need to divert these resources directly into the community and help build up those grassroots movements so that people can decide for themselves that this is a tradition that they don’t want to carry forward.
FGM falls between two different agendas, one dealing with violence against women, the other with violence against children. Do those agendas need to integrate more?
Definitely. Children grow up to be women, so it’s clear to me that the two camps need to work much more closely together. FGM is like any other form of abuse – it all falls down to the amount of value we place on the lives and wellbeing of women and children.
What’s next for the fight against FGM?
One of the campaigns we’re about to launch is called the Big Sister Movement, a collective of African women who are directly impacted by FGM, asking the African Union to ban FGM by 2020 with the hope of ending the practice completely by 2030. The priority is building a movement of African women big enough to eradicate FGM for the next generation.
I really think it’s possible, now more than ever. When I look at what’s happening in the Gambia and across Africa, I have real hope. Some places will pose greater challenges than others, but so long as the resources are there to facilitate conversations and grassroots change then we can get there.
To do that, we need to stop treating little wins as successes – and focus on ending it totally.
(Picture credit: Flickr/UN Women)