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Dukureh, from Atlanta, is leading the campaign to end FGM in the US. Photograph: Mae Ryan/The GuardianThe United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon described the practice of female genital mutilation as a “human rights violation” that needed to end, on the day the Guardian threw its weight behind a campaign against the practice in the US.
Jaha Dukureh, a 24-year-old American who was mutilated as a child, is leading the campaign to end FGM in the US with a Change.org petitionurging the Obama administration to commission a report into how many women are affected and at risk today.
Dukureh launched the campaign at the Guardian’s New York office with UN representative Nafissatou Diop, US congressman Joe Crowley and Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger.
“I know it's hard to believe, but a lot of girls in New York, in Atlanta and throughout America have been through FGM, and even though our storylines might differ, the pain, trauma and horror are the same for every single one of us,” Dukureh said.
Dukureh, a mother of three who lives in Atlanta, was mutilated at a week old in Gambia, where she was born. Later, as a child bride, she endured the practice of "reopening", in New York, where she moved when she was 15.
The US government outlawed FGM in 1996, but at least 228,000 women in the US are thought to be affected, according to research from Brigham and Women’s hospital in Boston.
Ask President Obama to take the essential first step of commissioning a report to establish how many American women and girls are at risk of female genital mutilation. Experts say this is the first step in tackling a crime that persists despite legislation. UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon is backing the campaign saying FGM is a "human rights violation" that must end. Show your support
“At times, I feel like the government is afraid to address FGM because they fear dealing with our African cultures,” Dukureh said. “I say: history has taught us to do away with harmful cultures and traditions. Slavery was a culture in America for over 300 years. If culture is harmful and if culture triggers human rights violations, then that piece of the culture must go. I am a proud African woman from this culture, and I say not one single ounce of good comes of mutilating girls.”
Ban Ki-moon endorsed the campaign, and sent Diop, of the UN’s United National Population (UNFPA) and Unicef joint program on FGM, to the campaign's launch.
“This is a serious health and human rights issue,” said Diop, speaking on behalf of Ban. “The effects include depression, insecurity, pain, infections, incontinence and deadly complication in pregnancy and childbirth. While some may say FGM is a tradition, it constitutes a human rights violation that must cease.”
The UN’s program is aimed at helping those communities that practice FGM to abandon it. “These agencies have adopted a human rights-based approach to encourage communities to act collectively, so that girls or their families who opt out do not jeopardize their marriage prospects or become social outcasts,” Diop said.
Rusbridger said he was hopeful about the campaign’s success in the US because of the Guardian’s experience in the UK, where Fahma Mohammed, a young British activist, spearheaded a campaign that led education secretary Michael Gove to write to all schools in England and Wales, warning teachers about the dangers of FGM.
"I think the hope of everybody involved in this field is that it is possible to eradicate this, and that there is the real, tangible hope of improving the health, expectations and happiness of million girls and women in more than 30 countries where this problem affects so many lives,” Rusbridger said.
Crowley, the Democratic congressman for New York’s 14th district, also spoke at Monday’s event, where he said he is looking to emulate the work done in the UK.
Crowley is circulating a letter around Congress, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Education, and the State Department, calling for greater awareness among professionals who might come into contact with FGM victims.