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Female genital mutilation is illegal in The Gambia. But maybe not for much longer

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The Gambia may become the first country in the world to reverse a ban on female genital mutilation. The small West African country banned the practice in 2015. But yesterday, Gambian lawmakers voted to advance a bill that would end that ban. Supporters of the legislation argue that outlawing female genital mutilation was a violation of religious rights. Jaha Dukuray is the founder of Safe Hands for Girls, a local group in The Gambia that aims to end this practice. She's also a survivor. Jaha, thank you so much for joining us.

JAHA DUKURAY: Thank you, Ailsa, for having me.

CHANG: Can you just first give us a sense of how effective this current ban on FGM, as this practice is known, has even been in The Gambia? Like, how consistently has this ban been enforced the past several years?

DUKURAY: I think FGM was still happening in secret across The Gambia, but not as prevalent as it used to be before we had the ban, because, in 2015, when this ban happened, it was under our former president Yahya Jammeh, who was considered a dictator, so no one dared to go against him. But even outside of that, we've seen a lot of local organizations do a lot of educational programs, so there has definitely been a cultural shift in The Gambia. And I don't think it's necessarily all because of the law, but I think it's because of the advocacy programs, the educational programs and people knowing that this practice is harmful.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, global health organizations say this practice comes with extreme health risks, like infections, problems during childbirth and - can you give us an idea why there is so much cultural support in The Gambia for this practice despite the risks?

DUKURAY: I mean, our mothers went through FGM. Our grandmothers went through FGM. Many women of my generation went through FGM. And they don't think there's anything wrong with it. You know, our parents did not put us through FGM because they hated us, so that's the mindset a lot of people have. And we have to invest in the unlearning process because it's not only men that are supporting this practice, but there's a lot of women that are also saying, well, we've been through FGM, and we have no issues with it. We give birth to our children perfectly. But what they are forgetting is the psychological effect that comes with this practice - the pain and the trauma. It's really heartbreaking as a woman and as a survivor myself, but this is our reality.

CHANG: Do you mind sharing your experience with us?

DUKURAY: Yes. I mean, I don't remember going through it because I was 1 week old when I went through it.

CHANG: Wow.

DUKURAY: But I remember, when I was about 10 years old, I had a little sister that died from bleeding when she was subjected to FGM, and she was also 1 week old.

CHANG: Oh, my God.

DUKURAY: So for me, that's why yesterday, when I spoke to Members of Parliament in our National Assembly, I told them this is very, very personal because, for me, this is bigger than the issue of FGM. I know that, if they succeed at repealing this law, they'll come after the child marriage law. They'll come after every progressive law that we have in this country to protect women and girls.

CHANG: What inspired you to become an advocate?

DUKURAY: When I was 15 years old, I was forced to get married. And on my wedding day, that's when I discovered that I went through FGM. And I went through type III FGM, which means that I was sealed.

CHANG: And you had no idea until your wedding day.

DUKURAY: Exactly.

CHANG: Wow.

DUKURAY: So when I found out that I was sealed and my marriage couldn't be consummated until that seal was taken off, that's when I knew what this practice meant. And I made a promise to myself on that night that my daughter will never be subjected to something as horrific as what I was subjected to. But it's more than just my daughter. Globally, 200 million women and girls are living with the consequences of this practice.

CHANG: What have you been hearing from other women and girls about what it will mean to them if this ban is indeed reversed?

DUKURAY: I mean, a lot of them are scared, but that's also - you know, like, every day, I get hundreds, if not thousands, of messages online from survivors of FGM. They find my number, and they message me privately to share their experiences and how worried they are and how scared they are. Yesterday, for instance, I received a message from a young woman that shares my daughter's name, and she's like, I really want to support you and stand by you, but I'm worried that my family would disown me if I do that.

CHANG: Wow.

DUKURAY: That's what we are facing. And a lot of times, it's lonely. Like, they're invalidating our pain, and we are being branded as the Western agents. We are being branded as the liars that are paid by the West to come tell them what to do and that their culture is bad when that's not the case. I'm the most Pan-Africanist person that I know. I love this continent. I love this country. And my heart breaks for Gambian women that, in 2024, we are still dealing with this.

CHANG: Jaha Dukuray is the founder of Safe Hands for Girls, a Gambian organization that aims to end female genital mutilation. Thank you so much for spending the time to speak with us, Jaha.

DUKURAY: Thank you for amplifying our voices, and we are grateful. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lauren Hodges is an associate producer for All Things Considered. She joined the show in 2018 after seven years in the NPR newsroom as a producer and editor. She doesn't mind that you used her pens, she just likes them a certain way and asks that you put them back the way you found them, thanks. Despite years working on interviews with notable politicians, public figures, and celebrities for NPR, Hodges completely lost her cool when she heard RuPaul's voice and was told to sit quietly in a corner during the rest of the interview. She promises to do better next time.
Kathryn Fox
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.