I Learned to Follow, and Real Change Happened

08/06/2015 03:52 pm ET Updated Aug 06, 2016

In February 2013, I wrote a piece here called "We Must Give Them Our Support" about my newfound understanding of the impact of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) on girls and women in the U.S. and a few young people I'd met who were starting a movement to end its practice. This is an update, written to share with you how much has happened, and how much I've learned.

Back then, I had been representing survivors of FGM/C for many years and also assisting girls and women trying to avoid being cut, and I was heartbroken by their stories. Those who had been through it told me about the physical pain they had endured along with the psychological wounds they carried related to their trauma, including feelings of fear, betrayal, anxiety, and depression. They lived through forced marriages and domestic abuse, sometimes related to the FGM/C, and confronted ignorance when they sought help from their doctors, therapists, teachers, lawyers, counselors, and law enforcement. They asked me to speak up, and I did, but I also felt in my gut that my voice was not as important as theirs. One survivor, a young woman named Jaha Dukureh, has proven that right.

Jaha* had been through a lot in her young life. When she was a baby in the Gambia, she underwent a very severe form of FGM/C called infibulation, in which part of her genitals had been removed and the rest stitched up, leaving a small hole for urination and menstruation. Jaha didn't remember going through this, but she lived with physical and emotional scars nonetheless. She certainly remembered what happened to her after she came to the U.S.: her family took her to a medical doctor in New York City who did not use anesthesia when he opened up Jaha's old wounds so that her husband could consummate their marriage -- rape her -- after she had been forced to marry him.

Jaha eventually broke free, got help, and got safe. She finished high school, left the city, and made a new life for herself. She wasn't satisfied getting on her with her life, though. She wanted to help prevent FGM/C among girls in America. With really no resources to speak of, Jaha began to use the Internet to build a movement. She built a blog where she could talk about her experiences and encourage other girls and women to come forward and share theirs. She posted news and information about FGM/C, and through Facebook and Twitter, started to build a network of other survivors and anti-FGM/C activists. She began a petition, caught the attention of international media outlets, and eventually, got high-level meetings with the White House and various agencies in Washington. She had not only begun a movement, but she'd been successful in gaining traction for her cause and inspiring so many more of us to get behind her. She did all this despite fear of retribution from her community both here and in the Gambia, and when tensions have arisen, she has negotiated with her peers and elders for safety and lasting change that would be inappropriate and impossible for an outsider to impose.

This week, I was invited to sit with Jaha at a very intimate meeting among a small handful of activists and a remarkable group of lawmakers: U.S. Senators Reid, Klobuchar, Warren, Stabenow, Boxer, Murray, and Shaheen. They listened intently to Jaha as she talked about her experiences, and how our government's lack of attention to forms of violence such as FGM/C and forced marriage leaves girls and women out in the cold. What she is seeking is not prosecution or profiling, but responsible, respectful work to support those inside communities who are working for change.

I remember writing two years ago about how much support young advocates like Jaha needed. Now I can see that Jaha's journey has been transformative, not just for her, but for me. I am humbled to see someone so young leading us all as we fight for equality for girls and women, and to make this country a better place.

*Jaha gave me permission to tell her story here. You can learn more about her work at www.safehandsforgirls.org.