Where I am from, a girl is recognized by the following: Who is her father? Who is her husband? Where are her children? Society believes these are the only stages in a girl’s life. Men and women spend their whole lives teaching their girls how to eat, drink, walk and subject their girls to female genital mutilation (FGM) and early marriage in the name of religion and culture.
I am from The Gambia; the smallest country in mainland Africa. We have a population of about two million people, 60% of whom are young people under the age of 24. Almost half of the population lives in abject poverty. In my country, women bear the weight of these challenges and endure all the injustices society has to offer despite the fact that our government signed and ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and is also a signatory to the Beijing Declaration which has the singular purpose of promoting gender equality and empowerment of women around the world.
As a survivor of FGM, I believe it’s my duty to create awareness on this harmful cultural practice affecting women and girls. I would not have done all my activism both local and international without my father’s firm belief in girls’ empowerment through education. With all my experience and both formal and informal educational background, I decided to represent and speak for the voiceless.
Where I come from
I am the sixth child of my parents’ seven children, all of whom started school as early as 4 years old. I was the only one who started school at age 7 because my father was more interested in teaching me the Holy Quran first before enrolling me to school. He wanted me to understand the fundamental principles of Islam and differentiate Islamic values from cultural values. My father made sure I was going to school and at the same time attending Arabic school.
At the age of 11, I memorized the Holy Quran and started studying Islamic Sharia law. I attended a Catholic middle school during the day, and in the evening I went for my Islamic studies. Going to a Catholic school made me an outcast in my society and during my Grade 9 exams, my Islamic teacher would keep me in the mosque until late hours before releasing me in order to prevent me from studying for my exams. The only difference between other girls in my country at the time and me was that I had an advocate who went against all the odds to make sure I had the same opportunities boys had to reach their fullest potential.
Although my father was not able to protect me when my aunty kidnapped me and took me to the circumciser, he taught me the Holy Quran and made sure I attended school. My father was called “Western” and was denied access to Muslim gatherings because he never asked me to wear hijab. He was a disabled man and he relied on his wheelchair, but he worked very hard to empower my mother who took over his business after his stroke. Unlike many of my friends’ fathers, he believed a woman could be more than a housewife.
Finding my voice
In May 2011, I was appointed as the head girl of Nusrat Senior Secondary School. One of my many responsibilities was to work with the staff to improve girls’ academic performance. In my research, I discovered most of the girls in my school were betrothed to be married. Some faced domestic violence, and others were victims of teenage pregnancy. As a result, they were often expelled while the perpetrators continued to go to school.
With the help of my father and the school administration, I organized an All Girls Conference for 700 girls from different schools in the greater Banjul (the capital city) area. This event served as a platform for girls from different backgrounds to come together and discuss issues hindering their performance in school with mentors, counseling experts, and peer health educators. At the end of the meeting, the participants came up with a pledge. My school helped me send it to the Vice President, the Office of Women’s Affairs and the Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education and I was granted audience by the Minister of Basic Education and a representative from the Office of the Vice President for follow ups on the issues raised by the girls at the conference.
I also made a video about early marriage in the Gambia with the support of my father, Young People in the Media, and The Gambia Committee on Harmful Traditional Practices-Access Gambia (GAMCOTRA). Working with GAMCOTRA, I went to rural Gambia where I spoke with victims of early marriage and learned the challenges they face in their daily lives.
The All Girls Conference and my video helped me launch a gender sensitization curriculum for young people to address and prevent gender-based violence in all schools and communities together with the Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education.
Challenging my culture
After I graduated from high school in August 2013, I was elected President of Young People in the Media, an organization which aims to use media to create a greater understanding of the developmental issues facing children and young people and to give youth the opportunity to express their feelings and aspirations. I decided to start a radio talk show to address issues faced by young people, especially girls. On the show, I challenged religious leaders who were preaching that FGM is written in the Quran and that a woman’s place is in her husband’s house. I studied the Quran for twelve years, and there is no chapter where Allah says a woman needs to be mutilated or a woman should not speak up.
In June 2013, I was invited to Abuja, Nigeria by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to speak on the role of young people in media and information literacy. After this meeting, I organized a capacity building training titled “Media Literacy: Incorporating Child Rights in a Changing Information Age.” The goal was to promote freedom of expression, access to the information youth need in order to be educated about technology, and to show them how they can use it to their advantage.
In December 2013, UNESCO organized the first Global Alliance on Media Information Literacy and Gender in Bangkok, Thailand. The main purpose of this event was to promote gender equality in the media. I was invited to participate as the UNESCO youth representative in the Global Alliance for Media and Information Literacy. I advocated for the inclusion of media and information literacy in school curricula because our President, who came to power through coup d’état in 1994, did not support freedom of the press.
With the support of UNESCO and the American Embassy in Banjul, my organization was able to train journalists and social media activists on how to engage people on online platforms, create online videos, and write blogs. The outcome of this was clear in our 2016 presidential election during which online media platforms were flooded with content.
How I will change the world
When my father died in 2014, his younger brother stepped in. He wanted to inherit my mother and he threatened to mutilate me a second time and marry me off, but my mom refused.
I fled to the United States and upon my arrival, I connected with Pooja Asnani, a lawyer at Sanctuary for Families. Pooja told me about Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, an option for young people who have been abused, neglected, or abandoned. Pooja represented me in Family Court and helped me obtain the orders I needed to apply for legal permanent resident status. In the summer of 2015, I received my green card thanks to Pooja and Sanctuary’s help.
These days I am pretty busy. As a Youth Representative on the UN Communications Coordination Committee’s Board of Directors, I represent the voices of the young and bring the attention of the Council to issues affecting young people. I stay connected to Sanctuary through their FGM Coalition. As head of the Coalition’s Youth Advocacy Committee I work with members to raise awareness about the dangers of FGM in New York’s African communities.
I am also working with Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Dr. Masood Katamee. He is a clinical professor at the New York School of Medicine and the founder of a gynecology and fertility research foundation, and together we are organizing a conference on June 22nd at the UN Headquarters with the theme Eradicating Harmful Cultural Practices Impacting Women’s and Girl’s Health and Well-being.
I am additionally working with UNESCO Paris to develop an app that will enable students in Africa to access library resources on their smartphones so that they don’t have to travel long distances in order to go to their school library. I am building this app based on my experience and the experiences of many young people in developing countries.
This fall, I plan to attend college. I want to study Women’s and Gender Studies because I will be able to learn not only about gender issues, but about sexuality, social class, ethnicity, race, and nationality. Studying the consequences of inequality in this way can help us shape a better world.
In the future, I plan to work with UN organizations like UN Women to encourage men to advocate for women’s equality.
I know I can influence change. By sharing my experiences as an African girl with the world, I believe I can create a difference in the lives of young people everywhere.