When UCF graduate student Jaha Dukureh started Safe Hands for Girls in 2013 to help end female genital mutilation, she admittedly knew nothing about running a nonprofit organization.
“The only thing I had was passion, but with this work, I knew that it would take more than passion to drive the organization to where I wanted it to be,” the Nobel Peace Prize nominee says by phone from Senegal.
So she did what any resourceful person in 2018 would do — she turned to Google.
Her search on nonprofit-management degree programs generated numerous universities, including UCF Online. UCF’s program, regarded as one of the top in its field by U.S. News & World Report, combined with its affordability and flexibility in an online curriculum was the perfect combination for the globally renowned activist.
“If I didn’t have an education, I had no possibility whatsoever to make it out of the situations that I’ve made it out of.”
On Saturday, the 28-year-old will walk across the stage at the School of Public Administration’s graduation ceremony and receive her diploma.
Education has meant everything to Dukureh because it changed the course of her life. A life that began on the west coast of Africa in The Gambia where, at a week old, she was subjected to one of the worst forms of female genital mutilation.
A life that included an arranged marriage as a 15-year-old to a much older man in New York.
A life that has inspired the work Dukureh does every day. The same work that has earned her recognition as one of Time magazine’s ‘100 Most Influential People’ and an appointment as the United Nation Women’s first regional goodwill ambassador for Africa.
“I think I am who I am because of my chance to get an education,” she says. “If I didn’t have an education, I had no possibility whatsoever to make it out of the situations that I’ve made it out of.”
1 of 200 Million
Like many girls in Africa, Dukureh was subjected to FGM as a baby.
More than 3 million girls are estimated to be at risk for FGM annually, and more than 200 million girls and women alive have been cut in 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, where the practice is concentrated, according to the World Health Organization.
“I was one-week old when I went through FGM. My mom had passed away, and she wasn’t here to explain to me why she did it. In a way, I felt betrayed.”
The procedure involves partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for nonmedical reasons. It can lead to numerous health risks including infections, increased risk of childbirth complications, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and even death.
Although the procedure has no health benefits for girls and women, there are many cultural and social beliefs that serve as the reasoning for its practice.
Dukureh was unaware the procedure was done to her until she was 15. That’s when she entered an arranged marriage, which had been set up for her years earlier.
“I was angry mostly because it was something I had no control over,” Dukureh says. “I was one-week old when I went through FGM. My mom had passed away, and she wasn’t here to explain to me why she did it. In a way, I felt betrayed.”
In a documentary about her life, Jaha’s Promise, she explains how she was cut and sewn as a baby and speaks about the medical procedure she needed after her marriage to reopen her, which was performed by a doctor in Manhattan. She recalls the doctor telling her she needed to have intercourse right away to keep it open.
That marriage eventually ended, and she relocated to Atlanta where she found a job and remarried. She earned her bachelor’s degree in business administration and management from Georgia Southwestern State University in 2013.
She and her husband now have three children, but to be clear, the effects and pain of FGM never go away, she says.
Dukureh researched to try to find answers to understand her own body. She realized the procedure was permanent. When she was pregnant with her daughter, she decided it was time for the world to make a change.
She wanted real impact.
Jaha’s Promise to End FGM
In her documentary, she details how she started a petition on Change.org, which wanted President Barack Obama’s administration to conduct a study on the prevalence of women and girls in the United States who were impacted by or at risk of FGM. The petition drew interest from Equality Now and The Guardian newspaper, and soon after began receiving thousands of signatures a day.
“I wanted the U.S. government to look into the issue, and I hoped something would come out of it, but to say that I knew my petition would turn into what it did, I had absolutely no idea,” Dukureh says. “When the petition started getting a lot of attention and the media became super interested in what I was doing, at that point I knew that we could actually make a huge difference.”
Dukureh hasn’t looked back since.
She has charged on every day with her organization alongside others such as the World Health Organization and United Nations to denounce FGM and work on implementing public policies and building evidence through research against the practice.
She travels frequently to destinations all over the world to promote her cause. Her activism helped influence The Gambia’s decision to ban FGM in 2015, a day that she cites as her biggest achievement.
But she knows they still have a long way to go to reach the U.N.’s goal of ensuring global abandonment of FGM by 2030.
“Our world leaders are still acting like this is an African problem. It’s not that. It’s a human-rights violation.”
“Our world leaders are still acting like this is an African problem. It’s not that. It’s a human-rights violation. It’s a women’s issue. I think that continues to be our setback,” she says. “This is not on the agenda of human-rights issues. It’s not on the agenda of the feminist movement. It’s not on the agenda of a lot of movements that we’d like to see.”
So she continues to push.
This year she was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize by Norwegian politician Jette Christensen, who met her at a film festival in her own country.
There are countless tales of the men and women she encounters, just like Christensen, who are always inspired by the soon-to-be UCF alumna.
“Jaha’s work shows the global impact UCF students, faculty, staff and alumni have on communities near and far. She is a role model for others balancing work, life and activism,” says UCF associate professor of public administration Staci Zavattaro, who had Dukureh as a student in her nonprofit-organizations course. “The UCF community should be proud of all her efforts toward making this world a more just, sound place.”