“I have a daughter and saying I don’t want my daughter to go through this [FGM] was not enough.”
Jaha was only a baby, hardly a week old, when an older woman in her community in the Gambia cut her clitoris and sealed her vagina in a practice known as female genital mutilation (FGM). She tells me that her health related issues are not so much physical as they are psychological. She remembers that her half sister was also cut when she was a week old, but due to health complications she died soon after the procedure. For a very long time Jaha was tormented trying to understand FGM and coming to terms with what had happened to her and her sister’s death.
According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), FGM involves the cutting of female genitalia for non-medical purposes. It is estimated that between 100 and 140 million girls and women around the world have undergone some form of FGM. This harmful traditional practice is internationally recognised as a human rights violation that causes short and long-term physical and psychological consequences and may result in death.
FGM is primarily driven through culture and religion and for many traditional societies these acts are simply done and left unquestioned. But, Jaha’s moment of questioning tradition came when her baby sister died after the procedure. She tells me “I felt it [FGM] was wrong, but I was 8 or 9 and didn’t understand much. When I was 15 and got married, that’s when I realised what this practice really was and what it meant.”
At only 25, Jaha has become a leading voice in the U.S. and the Gambia to end FGM. She says “I saw the need for our voices to be heard and for something to be done about vacation cutting in the U.S.” Vacation cutting is a term commonly used to refer to immigrant families in the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere who take their girls back home during summer breaks to get them cut. According to the organization Equality Now, half a million girls in the U.S. have undergone or are at risk of female genital mutilation.
Jaha is adamant about ending FGM so that the next generation of girls will be spared. She tells me “I have a daughter and saying I don’t want my daughter to go through this [FGM] was not enough.” In 2014, she launched a petition on Change.org calling on US President Barak Obama to address FGM in the US. More than 200,000 people signed the petition which gave her the impetus to speak with advisers and place FGM again as a human rights priority issue for the Obama administration. After her success in the U.S. she took her campaign to the Gambia to face her family, community, and government. Her journey will soon be featured in a documentary film.
Jaha knows that eliminating a practice like FGM is not easy. She says that she gets a lot of negativity, most often from her own community. She admits that the pushback and comments she receives from family and community hurt her because she is going against culture and tradition. But, she approaches the topic in a very respectful manner and tells me she is always cognizant not to look down on people or their beliefs. She focuses her campaigning primarily on the negative health effects of FGM.
Back in the Gambia, Jaha works with youth groups to raise awareness about the practice so that they serve as catalysts in taking information back to their communities in order to bring about change. Jaha also believes that providing resources to grassroots organizations especially those working in the most isolated places is key to ending FGM. She tells me that she believes that this generation of young people will end FGM. She says “the youths are already abandoning the practice and they are the biggest change agents in their community.”
Jaha’s story to stop FGM in the United States and the Gambia is coming together in a new documentary film, “Jaha’s Journey”, you can see the trailer on top of the page. Although the majority of the film has been funded by The Guardian and the Human Dignity Foundation, funds are still required to complete the film. An Indiegogo crowd funding campaign was launched to raise the $65,000 still needed.
Please consider helping in funding their Indiegogo campaign . You can give as little as $5, $10, or $25 or even more. Each contribution comes with its own perk ranging from a personal thank you from Jaha to your name listed and recognised in making the film happen.