Editor’s Note: This piece discusses gender and sexual violence. Please use discretion while reading.
Jaha Dukureh is working to create a safer future for young girls everywhere.
A leader in the global movement to end female genital mutilation (FGM) and child marriage, the activist has played a major role in changing laws and bringing awareness through her non-profit organization Safe Hands for Girls. Through her work with SHG, Dukureh was named a L’Oréal Paris Women of Worth Honoree back in 2015 and again honored by the brand with their Women of Worth Impact Award in 2018.
Her accolades are impressive, but her story is equally moving. As a former child bride and a survivor of FGM, Dukureh brings not only a wealth of information but also personal experience to the work she is putting forth into the world.
We sat down with Dukureh to discuss her work with Safe Hands for Girls, what makes her feel beautiful and using her platform for good.
Talk to us about your life and upbringing in Gambia and how you think it shaped you as a woman and an activist.
I had a happy upbringing that was filled with beautiful memories of my parents, siblings and friends. As a child, I was known for being both a troublemaker and an organizer at home and school. People told me I was different from my sisters — I was too brave and talked too much. I didn’t accept things merely because others said I should. I questioned traditions that seemed unjust and forged my own rules to live by. I’ve always had a mind of my own, and this sense of self-worth has shaped me and propelled me to help make a difference in people’s lives.
Can you talk about the reality of child marriages?
I was a child bride twice in my life — once when I was fifteen, and then again when I was seventeen. In Gambian culture, you relinquish childhood privileges once you marry. This sense of loss, coupled with the psychological pain of marrying a stranger old enough to be my father, was devastating.
Intimacy with my husband felt like rape; afterward, I would cry myself to sleep. My own impotence angered me and, because I felt trapped, I channeled my energy towards saving other women.
After having children, society told me I should bear my pain for the sake of my children. In a way, my work is fueled by my desire to protect my daughter from my own painful experiences. I hope to give her the choices I didn’t have.
You’ve since remarried and had children. Walk us through that transition into motherhood and how that has shaped your work.
My children, especially my daughter, are the inspiration and reasons behind my work. I rejoice when I see my daughter laughing and watching TikTok videos. When I was her age, I was already someone’s bride-in-waiting, but she is free to live her life as she chooses. Her happiness and freedom are worth all the pain I endured, and I’m so thankful to see the fruit of my work through her and through other women in communities worldwide.
What makes you feel beautiful? What is your beauty routine?
It took me a long time to feel beautiful and accept myself the way that I am. Growing up, I’d compare myself to others, but now I feel beautiful dressed in traditional African clothes because they represent my home: Africa. These clothes showcase my personality and individuality.
When it comes to my beauty routine, I feel that a bold lip helps bring me confidence. In fact, when I first started my activism work, I would wear bright red lipstick because I didn’t want people to feel sorry for me. My lipstick represented my bravery and sass and helped me truly feel “worth it.” My current go-to is L’Oréal Paris Colour Riche Lipstick.
As part of my everyday beauty routine, I use eyeliner (to accentuate my eyes, which I believe to be one of my best features), lip liner, under-eye concealer and a little foundation to give me a pop of color and glow.
Your work also deals with female genital mutilation. Why has it been such an important aspect of your work?
I experienced FGM as a baby. Though I don’t remember it, I can recall one of my half-sisters going through the procedure and dying from medical complications. This trauma helped open my eyes to the injustice of FGM. As a teenager, I felt that I could not stay quiet on the issue after I learned that more than 200 million women are living with the dangerous consequences of the practice.
I feel it is important that women like me, who possess personal experience and cultural expertise tied to FGM, be given a platform through which they can mobilize lasting change in their communities.
Tell us about Safe Hands for Girls.
I founded Safe Hands for Girls in 2013, and my organization means everything to me. It is my baby. Two years later, I was honored as a L’Oréal Paris Women of Worth Honoree — a recognition which amplified my work and gave me a platform that allowed me to reach a greater pool of women across Africa.
To date, SHFG has served and reached over 100,000 individuals directly and more than 100 million online, as part of our mission to end FGM and child marriage.
How has your L’Oreal Paris appointment allowed you to reach different audiences?
I’m privileged to have the L’Oréal Paris family join me in my quest to defend women’s rights. Signing a contract with a beauty brand supports my conviction that FGM does not define me, nor any other woman.
L’Oréal Paris is currently searching for their 2020 class of Women of Worth, and I encourage anyone who knows a philanthropic leader to visit WomenofWorth.com to nominate her for the chance to receive up to $35,000 for her cause.
Now, as an international spokesperson for L’Oréal Paris, I’m able to expand my platform to give even greater voice to female struggles and the pain they have suffered. FGM is not a pretty issue — but I want to help women understand that their innate beauty and worth rests not in how others see them, but how they see themselves. We are each blessed with unique appearances, personalities and strengths, but it is our individuality that truly makes us shine.
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