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In Sudan, taking a stand against female genital cutting

© UNICEF Sudan/2014/Simonsen
“My daughter will not be cut,” says Fatema of her newborn, Imtenan, at Saudi Hospital, in Kassala, Sudan.

By Sven G. Simonsen

International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, 6 February, seeks to draw attention to a practice that represents an extreme form of discrimination against women – one that is nearly always carried out on minors. It violates a person's rights to health, security and physical integrity, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to life when the procedure results in death.

UNICEF currently works in 22 countries on the elimination of female genital mutilation/cutting, or FGM/C.

In eastern Sudan, the tradition of female genital cutting is gradually becoming a thing of the past, as women – and their families – recognize the dangers it poses to children and mothers alike.  

KASSALA, Sudan, 7 February 2013 – Sitting in a bed at Saudi Hospital with her newborn, Imtenan, Fatema explains that reaching her decision was easy, in spite of the strength of tradition. “My daughter will not be cut,” Fatema says.

The large majority of Sudanese women have been subjected to one of the most severe forms of genital cutting. But attitudes are changing, and more parents are opting out of the practice. 

 “My father is the one who started,” says the 35-year-old mother. “He would not cut me and my sister. Now our whole extended family has agreed that we will not cut our daughters.”

© UNICEF Sudan/2014/Simonsen
The Saudi Hospital’s exterior bears the bright signature colours of the Saleema programme, which aims to end female genital mutilation/cutting by promoting the ideal of ‘saleema’ – meaning ‘whole’, ‘intact’, ‘in a God-given condition’.

Fatema’s husband shares her view. “In fact,” she says, “he is the one who is insisting the most.”

Shift in attitude

Nearly nine out of 10 Sudanese women aged 15 to 49 have been cut. A majority have undergone a procedure known as infibulation, or ‘pharaonic circumcision’, in which all or part of the inner and outer labia, and usually the clitoris, are removed. Most often the operation is performed by a traditional birth attendant.

It is a procedure that comes with no health benefits, but high costs.

“It creates so many problems,” Fatema says. “It affects a woman during her period. It causes infections. It is a problem early in the marriage, and during pregnancy and delivery. And the child is also affected.”

Kassala has the third-highest prevalence of girls and women who have been cut – 78.9 per cent – according to the 2010 Sudan Household Health Survey.

But today, more than half of Sudan’s women believe the practice should be discontinued. And the shift in attitude is starting to have an impact on prevalence.

“If we compare the 2006 and 2010 Sudanese Household Surveys, we see a notable decrease in the practice of cutting,” says Abdelraouf Elsiddig Ahmed, UNICEF Child Protection Specialist.

“For instance, in the 5 to 9 age bracket, 34.5 per cent had been cut in 2010, compared to 41 per cent in 2006. In the next Household Survey, we expect to see a further decrease. That is when we will see the impact of the Saleema program.”

A positive message

The nationwide Saleema initiative, launched in 2008, aims to achieve what decades of legislation and campaigning have not achieved: to end female genital mutilation/cutting in Sudan.  The name ‘Saleema’ is itself is a key component of the program. Meaning ‘whole’, ‘intact’, ‘in a God-given condition’, it has been chosen to evoke positive connotations.

The message encouraging parents to let their girls remain Saleema is communicated widely on radio and television, as well as in health facilities, including at the Saudi Hospital in Kassala, where pregnant women are counselled on the benefits of not cutting.

Originally conceived with UNICEF support, the Saleema initiative is part of the National Strategy to Abolish FGM/C in Sudan, which is supervised by the National Council on Child Welfare.

© UNICEF Sudan/2014/Simonsen
Saudi Hospital Medical Director Abbaker Ramadan Aadam views signatures of mothers who have declared that they will not cut their daughters.

“My husband said no”

Aziza, 30, is the mother of three girls and three boys. She has come to Saudi Hospital for a routine checkup – she is six months pregnant with her seventh child. She confirms the impression that it is women, not men, who are most reluctant to abandon the practice of cutting girls.

“None of my three daughters have been cut,” she says. “I myself am convinced that cutting is bad – I have suffered its consequences when giving birth. But my mother and grandmother are not supporting my decision.”

In an attempt to settle the family conflict, Aziza had suggested that her daughters be cut in a less intrusive procedure.

“But my husband said no. He would not allow any cutting of our daughters.”

In Aziza’s view, most families in the part of Kassala where she and her family live are changing their attitude, turning against the cutting of girls.

“Every young woman will remain uncut”

Dr. Abbaker Ramadan Aadam is the Medical Director of Saudi Hospital and coordinates the Saleema initiative here. He first learned about Saleema when he was in school, and he protested to his parents against his little sister being cut.

“She was 3 years old then. She wasn’t cut – I managed to convince my parents,” he recalls.

Today, Dr. Aadam is impressed by the openness displayed by most women when discussing the issue of cutting.

“I had imagined that they would be very shy about it, but the opposite happened – they are very interactive and open to discussion, and they have thought about the importance of the issue.”

As for Fatema, she is certain that cutting will soon be history in Sudan.

“When women speak in favor of cutting, it’s due to ignorance,” she says.

“But I see a big change in how people think about this. Twenty years from now, I believe every young woman in this country will remain uncut.”



UNICEF Photography: Gender issues

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