Editor's Note: Some of the descriptive language in this post may disturb some readers.
Jaha Dukureh was just a week old when a procedure known as female genital mutilation -- or female circumcision -- was performed on her.
Her clitoris was removed and her labia were cut and repositioned to narrow the opening of the vagina — a process known as infibulation. The area was then sewn together leaving only a small hole for urination.
"Growing up, I really didn’t know that there was anything wrong with me or anything wrong with female genital mutilation as a whole, because I didn’t know what it really meant," Dukureh told the Washington Examiner.
When she was 15, Dukureh was forced into marriage and moved to the U.S. with her new husband. It was only when her husband couldn’t penetrate her during sex that she learned something was wrong.
She went to a Manhattan doctor who was familiar with FGM so that she could be "re-opened" in order to have sex with her husband.
"The fact that he didn’t take action and report it that this girl is 15 and she was brought here by her husband," Dukureh said. “The fact that he didn’t do anything knowing why I was there, that was — I think to this day when I think back about it — that’s one of the things that bothers me the most about it.”
Dukureh said she believes the reason the doctor did not report the incident was because many in America see the problem as one of culture and don’t want to get involved. Dukureh said she spoke with some Americans who asked her why she would want to change that culture.
“It’s not about me changing what these people believe in, it’s more about me knowing what’s wrong and what happened to me and knowing that no one deserves to go through that,” Dukureh said.
When it came time to give birth to her children, Dukureh faced another complication – delivery. Because of FGM, delivering each of her three children vaginally was an incredibly difficult and painful experience – even more so than what most women go through.
“Every time I had a baby, they had to cut me back up,” Dukureh said. “So it’s like I’m reliving it all over again.”
The World Health Organization estimates that 125 million girls and women have been subjected to FGM in the 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East where the practice is most common. In Gambia, where Dukureh was born, more than 76 percent of the women have been cut.
FGM was outlawed in the U.S. by federal legislation in 1996. In 2013, the Girls Protection Act was passed, which closed a loophole allowing American girls to be taken back to their home countries and cut — a practice known as “vacation cutting.”
It's part of a real war on women that has put activists like Dukureh on the front lines, even after moving to the U.S. She credits her strength to speak out against the practice to the release of a new film "Honor Diaries," about the oppression of women in Muslim-majority countries.
Dukureh’s experience wasn’t limited to FGM and a forced marriage, however. Her husband forced himself on her even when she didn’t want it and didn’t allow her to obtain an education. She described the marriage as “a living hell.”
With the help of a social worker, Dukureh was able to leave her marriage — but paid a price in her community. At 17, Dukureh went to live with her uncle in the Bronx. The community knew about her leaving her first marriage and treated her poorly.
“I think right after high school, I just got so tired of it and I called my dad,” Dukureh said. “I was like, ‘If you find me another husband, I promise I’m going to stay and like I won’t dishonor you this time. I promise to just be good and just stay,’ and pretty much that’s what happened.”
Dukureh, who now lives in Atlanta, said her second husband was much more understanding, and supports her efforts to end the practice of FGM, including her change.org petition, but she's still haunted by what she had to do to "honor" her father.
"He’s happy that I stayed in the marriage but he doesn’t know the things that I struggle with or if I’m depressed or if I cry myself to sleep every single day," Dukureh said. "No one knows that. These are things that I end up dealing with."
One of the biggest problems for activists is combating the idea that these practices are sanctioned by religion. Dukureh, a Muslim who grew up reading the Quran, said she never read anything that permitted FGM or forced marriages.
“No religion says you should harm or hurt another person,” Muslim-Canadian journalist and human rights advocate Raheel Raza told the Examiner. “However, there are people within the religion of Islam; Muslims who have embraced these practices and find some sort of justification from their own interpretation of the faith.”
Even now, Dukureh's work in founding a support group for women has angered her community.
"I get people’s husbands attacking me saying that I’m trying to turn their wives into Western, because I’m too Western," Dukureh said.
"I just know what’s right and what’s wrong. That’s it."