Unseating a Dictator? No Problem for Young Gambians

Unseating a Dictator? No Problem for Young Gambians

By Jaha Dukureh

Demonstrations against child marriage and female genital mutilation are growing in parts of West Africa. This gathering of protestors occurred just across the border from Gambia, in Senegal's Casamance region.
SourceChristian Aslund/Getty


Because mighty millennials are rocking the world.

By Jaha Dukureh

The author is the founder and executive director of Safe Hands for Girls, an organization working to end female genital cutting. 

Very few Westerners can point to Gambia on a map, let alone name its president. But this tiny West African country has become a microcosm of the incredible change sweeping Africa and the world. On December 1, Gambians elected a new president for the first time in 22 years. Led by a wave of millennial political activism on social media and in the streets, Adama Barrow unseated Yahya Jammeh — a man many Gambians thought would rule the country until his death. 

This incredible and unexpected change shows the true power of young people — in Africa and across the world — to stand up to power and change their culture. In a country where 55 percent of the population is under the age of 35, millennials represent an unstoppable force that is changing politics and culture in important and inspiring ways. A peaceful transition of power is far from guaranteed. Despite initially accepting the election result, Jammeh has since cited voting “abnormalities” and called for another election. Even more troubling are rumors of a planned coup. But younger generations are demanding change, and change we will have.

I was mutilated as a baby myself, and at age 15 was sent to marry a man more than twice my age.

Earlier this year, young people in Gambia, led by women’s rights activists like anti-female genital mutilation advocate Sait Matty Jaw, initiated conversations via Facebook and Twitter about political change, our values and our hopes for the future. Millennials started a WhatsApp exchange called “We’re engaged” and encouraged young Gambians to get involved. Activists went out into the streets and registered voters. For the first time in more than two decades, Gambians decided they didn’t have to accept the status quo. 

Not only did millennials in Gambia have the power to elect an underdog, but they also had the vision to support a candidate who himself supports women and girls. The country’s girls have long been subjected to violence, especially to female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) and child marriage. More than 75 percent of Gambian girls have been mutilated, and some 30 percent of underage girls are married nationwide. Many millennial women have suffered from these practices, and now they are ready to end them. I was mutilated as a baby myself, and at age 15 was sent to marry a man more than twice my age, living in New York. But I, like so many other women, refuse to be victim to these experiences. 

I returned to Gambia two years ago and, alongside thousands of other Gambian millennials, won a countrywide ban on FGM/C. Earlier this year, activists won another victory: a ban on marrying off girls younger than 18. We will not accept our culture as is. We will not accept our country as is. Instead, we are fighting every day — in the streets, online, in politics and in our communities — to change Gambia for the better. To build a new culture that respects women, protects girls and allows all children to grow up safe and happy.

Now we are taking another step toward progress: electing a president who listens to women’s voices, who has included long-time women’s rights activists like Dr. Isatou Touray and Amie Bojang-Sissoho as his advisers and who will appoint them to cabinet positions once he assumes power. Gambian women will finally have a voice in government, a role in policy decisions and a chance to create a better future for girls and for Gambia.

Millennials have built an amazing and powerful movement, and we have succeeded in creating real and long-lasting change. Now it is time for the international community to stand with us and force Yahya Jammeh to respect the people’s will and step aside. I’m happy to see that the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the United Nations have threatened sanctions, and I hope many other nations and people will do the same. The moment of change has come: It’s time for us all to move forward.