Born in The Gambia and sent to the United States at 15 for an arranged marriage, Jaha Dukureh was too young to remember her FGM procedure but she has never been able to shake the feeling that something is not quite right.
Jaha was just a week old when she was infibulated.
Infibulation, or type 3 female genital mutilation (FGM), entails narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal. The seal is formed by cutting and repositioning the inner, or outer, labia, with or without removal of the clitoris.
“I’m not whole. I’m not intact. Something was taken away from me,” she says.
Jaha was at the United Nations this week to share her story on the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation. Marked every year on 6 February, the Day aims to raise awareness of the risks of FGM, with this year’s theme focused on urging health workers to mobilize against the “medicalization” of the deeply harmful practice.
Female genital mutilation exposes girls and women to severe complications, including haemorrhage, tetanus, sepsis, urine retention, sexual dysfunction, and even death. Yet, 130 million girls and women alive today have been cut in some 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East, according to the UN. If the practice persists, by 2030, another 86 million girls will experience some form of FGM.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon meets with Jaha Dukureh, activist and FGM survivor. UN Photo/Evan Schneider
Prevalent in mostly least developed countries where there are also high rates of child marriage and adolescent pregnancies, FGM is deeply rooted in tradition and upheld by the unequal power relations between men and women and the desire to control women’s sexuality, according to the UN. In some communities it is believed that the practice has religious support but there is no evidence that FGM is required by Islam, Christianity or any other religion.
"Besides the physical harm that is implied on women, there is also the psychological part which when we sit with women, they mostly talk about. They feel that it's a humiliation for them to go through such a practice. Young girls are very touched when we talk to them about FGM because the most common word that we hear from women is that it's the worst day of my life,” said Mona Amin, a UN Development Programme FGM expert in Egypt.
A march against FGM. The participants are graduates and supporters of a rite of passage that serves as an alternative to FGM. Photo: UNFPA/Mandela Gregoire
The practice is almost universal in that country as well as in Somalia, Guinea and Djibouti, where more than 90 per cent of girls and women have been cut.
In Jaha’s home country, The Gambia, the prevalence rate for women aged 15-49 remains at 76.3 per cent, which means that 3 out of 4 women get cut in their lifetime. She says FGM is a deeply ingrained custom, one that is used to prevent girls from having sex before marriage and to keep them “clean.” And women who do not undergo FGM often are stigmatised and shunned from their communities.
“Women don’t need to be mutilated in order for them to stay virgins and I don’t think we’re unclean if we don’t go through FGM,” Jaha says. “For girls who have not gone through FGM, they’re seen as unclean, not fit to be in the same room with women who have gone through FGM. They even go as far as to say they stink when they walk into a room. It’s discrimination, basically. We’re telling women they’re not clean because a part of their body is not cut.”
A network of women advocates in Doka, Sudan. They are committed to ending FGM in their community. Photo: UNFPA
At 15, Jaha had to be “reopened” in order to have sex with her husband.
Female genital mutilation also has a direct impact on maternal mortality. Girls and women that have undergone the procedure are 70 per cent more likely to suffer haemorrhage after giving birth and are twice as likely to die during childbirth. FGM also has a direct impact on infant mortality, as it is linked with higher rates of infant resuscitation, stillbirth and increased risk of death during and immediately after birth.
“I have three kids and every time that I’ve delivered my babies, having to go through that process, of getting stitched up because of FGM and the scars that I have and the pain that I go through when I’m delivering my baby. With all three kids that I have, my labour has been more than 18 hours and that is a direct result of FGM,” says Jaha.
Strong in her conviction, Jaha founded Safe Hands for Girls, a non-governmental organisation aiming to end all forms of violence against women, especially FGM. Women who go through FGM, she says, especially girls born in the United States, suffer from low self-esteem. “They feel they can’t enjoy sex... and if they share their stories, they will be seen as freaks.”
International migration has increased the number of girls and women living in the West who have undergone FGM. And while that can be addressed in Western countries, where the procedure is wholly outlawed, change in Africa and the Middle East where FGM is prevalent must come from within.
Many countries see people from the West advocating against child marriage and FGM as intruding on their culture and religion, Jaha says.
“But when it comes from within, when you have people like myself, when you have people from the community, saying that even though this has been our culture, it’s not putting women ahead. It’s the women that know the pain and it’s those women that are standing up to say that we do not want this.”