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When Gambian president Yahya Jammeh banned female genital mutilation in his country last month, no one was as surprised as Jaha Dukureh.
"I couldn't even believe it," said Dukureh, a native of the small West African country where about 75 percent of girls are subjected to female genital mutilation, or FGM, the ritual practice of cutting off a girl's external genitalia.
The ban is a major victory for 26-year-old Dukureh, who now lives in Atlanta and has made it her life’s work to end FGM both in the U.S. and abroad.
Now, she is directly involved in writing the Gambian law. The nonprofit she founded, Safe Hands for Girls, is helping draft the legislation. Dukureh told HuffPost that the ban was a welcome surprise despite the political climate. "I'm happy that the president prioritized girls and women despite the elections," she said.
Dukureh says the law will likely include both prison time and monetary fines as punishment for FGM. In other African countries where FGM has been outlawed, the sentences include short prison terms (6 months to 3 years on average) and fines ranging from $5 to $5000.
She has been campaigning against FGM since 2013, when she founded Safe Hands for Girls. It's a deeply personal crusade for Dukureh, who told the NY Daily News that she was less than a week old when her labia and clitoris were cut off.
Dukureh was in the Gambia just before the president announced the ban, spending much of her time in her home village, Gambisara, which has a FGM rate of over 99 percent. She visited many schools and villages and held a three-day meeting in Kololi with anti-FGM advocacy group the Girl Generation.
At the meeting, Fatou Kinteh, a national program officer for the UN Population Fund said, "It used to be a 'taboo' to talk about FGM... [but] more and more people are becoming concerned and silence is being broken," according to Gambia's The Point.
The most effective line of argument in the Gambia was that "FGM is not a religious obligation," Dukureh said. The Gambia is about 90 percent Muslim, but FGM is also practiced among Christians. It's not tied to a particular religion or even country, but to familial, village, or tribal customs. She worked with religious leaders, including her father, a powerful imam, to spread that message.
She also spread the fact that the practice has no known medical benefit for women, unlike male circumcision, which is known to decrease the risk of urinary tract infections and STDs. She will return to the Gambia in January to host the country's first regional religious conference against FGM, with Muslim and Christian leaders from all over the world.
Dukureh's efforts have been bolstered by the Guardian's Global Media Campaign and video series against FGM. "The reason why my campaign has been so successful is that our grassroots efforts combined with media to create voices of change," Dukureh said.
So far, 19 other African countries have banned FGM, making the Gambia the twentieth. Even Somalia, which has the world's highest rate of FGM (98% of girls) has indicated that it may end the practice, according to the Guardian. Dukureh said she plans to do more more work in Somalia, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria in early 2016.
Dukureh also received $10,000 as a L'Oréal Paris Women of Worth Honoree, and will use the money to build the first health clinic for young women in the Gambia.
The Gambia’s ban also strengthened her resolve to eliminate FGM in the U.S., where the CDC estimates over 200,000 girls are at risk. In July, the Obama administration announced it would conduct a survey into FGM, when her Change.org petition amassed more than 220,000 signatures.
She has a team of 11 people working in America at Safe Hands for Girls. They run after-school programs for newly arrived refugees and African immigrants, counsel families, and speak at universities with African students.
In the U.S., FGM is illegal but is difficult to enforce because of the general secrecy of the practice, as well as a "vacation loophole," whereby African parents bring their daughters abroad for cutting.
But Dukureh is confident that the practice can be eliminated within her generation. "We can fight FGM in the US through awareness and education," she said. "Now is the time to intensify our campaign."