Speech: “Ending FGM is possible in our generation. It is no longer a dream”—Jaha Dukureh

Remarks by Regional UN Women Ambassador for Africa, Jaha Dukureh, at the Opening Session of the European Development Days, Spotlight Initiative section


I would like to thank Commissioner Neven Mimica for having us and I would also personally like to thank two of my heroes, UN Deputy-Secretary-General Amina Mohammed and UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngucka. You have done so much to make sure that women like me get this far.

I was born in the Gambia in 1989. I am 28 years old, and I went through Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) when I was one week old. At 15 years old, I was forced to get married and then I remarried at the age of 17. So, before turning 18 I had already been married twice. I lost my mother just three months before I got married.

Globally there are more than 750 million women who are living with the consequences of child marriage and over 200 million women from more than 30 countries who are living with the consequences of FGM. These are not just human rights issues, and these are not just women’s issues, they are gruesome violations of their rights. When you force a young girl to get married at such an early age, you’ve given someone the right to rape her every single day. A lot of times when we think about child marriage, we don’t think about it that way.

I remember when I first started talking about FGM—this was right after I gave birth to my daughter Kadija—I knew that I couldn’t live in a world where my daughter would go through the same things that I went through. For years I advocated against FGM, but I couldn’t talk about child marriage. And to this day, it’s very, very hard for me to talk about child marriage. Because every time I hear a story of a girl going through child marriage it takes me back to where I was. In my office, both in the Gambia and in the US, when a case of child marriage comes up, my colleagues see how I withdraw from everyone; it’s very, very difficult for me to talk about it.

I don’t see any violation of human rights that is greater than child marriage and FGM. In our communities, the first bad thing that happens to a girl when she is born is FGM, and we use FGM to prepare her for marriage. Female genital mutilation doesn’t benefit women in any shape or form. We do it simply for the benefit of men. And it’s time as a global community­ to take these practices seriously —this is not an African issue, it’s a global issue­.

That is why I’m very, very happy that the European Union (through the EU-UN Spotlight Initiative) has given 500 million euros to ending violence against women, and that some of that will go to ending violence in Africa. The focus of the Spotlight Initiative in Africa will be on ending harmful traditional practices, which includes both FGM and child marriage.

To me, working with UN Women as their first Regional Goodwill Ambassador for Africa, it’s an opportunity for us to mobilize young people so that they can be a part of this conversation.

I think one of the reasons why I am very, very happy to stand in front of you is that growing up, after losing my mother, was very lonely and very challenging. Although I have accomplished a lot, for instance being nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, the first person that I wanted to talk to about this was my mother, but she wasn’t there. Then I came to New York, and Mama Phumzile was more excited about my Nobel Peace Prize nomination than I was. Ever since then, as she has been going around the world, she has also been telling everyone about me, and I don’t feel motherless anymore as a result of that, because I have women like you, women like Amina Mohammed and people like Dr. Isatou Touray who have paved the way for us to do this work on FGM. Dr Touray started talking about FGM in the Gambia when it was very unfashionable to do that - and no one was doing it. But because of how we saw women like her, we started doing it too. Today she is the Minister of Trade in our country and one of the first females in our country who has got into political office. I want to thank her for that. You have opened so many doors for us.

I also want to thank the European Commission, for the investment that you have made through the Spotlight Initiative, and I urge other donors to also make the same investment. I urge the European Commission to continue pushing the agenda for women and girls.

Ending FGM is possible in our generation. It is no longer a dream. It is happening, because with women like me, who know what it feels like, we can get these harmful practices out at the forefront of the campaign. This is not a career focus. It is our life. It’s about our daughters, it’s about our mothers; it’s about our sisters. But we can’t do it alone. We need your support, and we need sustainability in order for us to accomplish that.

UN Women, the United Nations, as well as other partner organizations, like UNFPA and UNICEF are all doing a tremendous job. But we can only continue to do that work with your sustained resources. So, we thank you and we ask you to do more.

Thank you, Commissioner.