When something terrible and traumatic happens to someone, those around the victim don’t always handle it the right way. They might stay silent because the victim doesn’t know how to process what has happened. But staying silent doesn’t help anyone.
The silence that surrounds the horror of female genital mutilation (FGM) can only isolate survivors more. They often feel like shadows and ghosts are haunting the bodies they once called home. They live in fear of speaking out, because who is going to listen to their story? Who is going to hear them and help them?
Instead of being silent, we should be listening and speaking out when we see someone struggling. Jaha Dukureh, a survivor of childhood FGM from Gambia, has been doing just that. In 2013, Dukureh founded an organization called Safe Hands for Girls, which helps support women and girls who are survivors of FGM. The organization also aims to bring awareness to and address the long-term physical and psychological consequences survivors of FGM face.
She told The Guardian,“There is such a culture of silence about FGM in America. If you stand up and say ‘This happened to me’, people will scrutinize you, but someone has to stand up and say, this can’t go on happening. This is human rights abuse and it has to stop.”
In 2016, Dukureh was named one of Time Magazine’s most influential leaders. She says, “In Washington they don’t want to talk about vaginas, they don’t want to hear about this issue and they don’t want to address it. Sometimes, I feel is Washington afraid to tackle FGM – are they scared of it?” In 2015, Dukureh took her work straight to Washington and convinced President Obama to take action on FGM. Together they were able to help get the practice banned in Gambia.
Dukureh told The Guardian, “FGM is not something that is happening in a far away place. It is happening here to American girls. When these kids are being sent back they are told they are going to meet their families. Often the parents are not to blame, they take their kids back home and it can be done without your permission – you go out and come back to a mutilated child.”
A stigma seems to surround FGM, which creates a culture of silence and fear. The practice continues to happen because of cultural ideals. Dukureh told The Guardian, “When people come to this country they bring their traditions with them – they eat the same food, dress in the same way – what makes people think that they won’t continue with FGM?” she asks. “Yes it’s a cultural issue but I’m from this culture and I am saying, this is not to our benefit. This is abuse.”
Dukureh knows that everything won’t change overnight, but she hopes the awareness she is bringing to the subject will change something. She says, “I don’t want to be poster child. I want every woman who has been through this to be able to speak out. But you know, in every revolution one person has to stand up to be counted, then other people follow. Right now everyone is turning a blind eye and pretending nothing is wrong – but once we stand up together, they won’t be able to ignore us any more.”
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