When Matida Daffeh receives her honours bachelor of arts degree today, it will be the culmination of an extraordinary journey: one that has been difficult, dangerous and ultimately triumphant.
At the time she arrived in Toronto in 2016, Daffeh was already a well-known campaigner for the rights of women and girls in her West African home country of The Gambia. It was work that frequently put her in great danger.
Under the rule of now-exiled dictator Yahya Jammeh, human rights defenders were routinely subject to arrest and torture — and when a local newspaper falsely reported that Daffeh was considering challenging him for the presidency, the spotlight was trained harshly on her.
“I knew my life was in danger,” she says, recalling the day she was called in for questioning by the country’s National Intelligence Agency. “It was a very risky time for me.” Soon after, however, she received an opportunity to attend a leadership program in Toronto led by the Women’s Human Rights Institute, which was then housed at OISE. She left The Gambia and eventually sought asylum in Canada.
Within a year, Daffeh enrolled in U of T’s Transitional Year Program and took her first step toward earning a university degree. This was something that had seemed like an unattainable dream for her, a village child in a polygamous family of 20 siblings — particularly after the death of her father, the family’s main breadwinner.
And yet, parted from her four-year-old son back home, Daffeh was also experiencing some of the lowest moments of her life. “Three months prior to coming to U of T, I lost my mother as well,” she recalls. “So here I was grieving, all alone in this very wide place.”
Having spent so long campaigning for the rights of others, Daffeh knew she had to start advocating for herself.
“It took some time; I didn’t know if I could trust people to talk to them about my reality,” she says. “But there is so much support at U of T, if you know how to navigate: whether through the registrar’s office, or the Family Care Office, or the student community.”
Daffeh was joyfully reunited with her son in 2018, and eventually became a mentor herself with the Family Care Office. There, she helped others integrate studies with family life. “This was one of the most rewarding things,” she says. “It’s what I love to do — not telling people what they should do but sharing advice about what has worked for me.”
With a double major in women & gender studies and equity studies, and a minor in African studies, Daffeh was able explore the theoretical side of the extraordinary work she had been doing in both The Gambia and Senegal, the larger country that surrounds it.
Before coming to Canada, Daffeh worked with a sustainable development organization in Africa called United Purpose. She was also the co-founder of a grassroots feminist movement known as The Girls’ Agenda, aimed at aim ending female genital mutilation (FGM) and other practices that that negatively impact women and girls.
“I was exposed myself to FGM when I was four or five years old,” she says, “and my personal experience has shaped much of the activity and the social justice work that I do. In my work, I lived with people in some of the smallest and most remote communities, seeing women and girls experience issues with inequality: whether that was FGM, domestic violence, teen pregnancies, or lack of decision-making power.”
Today, Daffeh is optimistic that the situation is getting better for women in her country. A 2013 study established that 76.3 per cent of females in The Gambia were subject to FGM; but it has been banned there since 2015, and there is reason to believe it could be eliminated within a generation. And yet, Daffeh is ever on her guard, knowing that the issues she fights against are often considered mere “women’s issues” by some political leaders and thus less worthy of attention.
In Canada, she fully intends to continue her human rights work. A consistently excellent student, she received many awards and scholarships while a member of Woodsworth College: these included the Brookfield Peter F. Bronfman Leadership scholarship, the Dr. Joyce Connolly Award, the June Straker Award and the Phyllis Velona Walker scholarship. “There is no way to express how much these people have helped me,” she says. “I can’t thank them enough.”
This fall, she will begin working toward her master’s degree in social justice education at OISE; from there she is considering a law degree, “to contribute to systemic change.”
Daffeh has overcome great obstacles on the way to her graduation. In the end, her story serves as an example to those who, faced with far smaller challenges, may be scared of committing to a purposeful life that involves big risks.
“Society is structured in a way that we are expected to accept the status quo. If you dare to question it, you are labelled,” she says. “But I would say that if you are interested in work in social justice, or in feminist or racial issues, go for it! When I started, it just began as conversations with my friends. Eventually, I got involved at the community level.
“I know it can be very scary,” she continues, “but the world definitely needs to be changed. And if you are labelled as an angry person? Well, that is okay.”
Congratulations to U of T's Class of 2022!
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