Reimagining the future for girls in Sudan
On International Day of the Girl Child, young advocate Maha Sayed Mostafa Koko, explores how the power of a girl’s voice can end harmful practices
This year’s International Day of the Girl Child (IDGC) has an added significance to girls and women in Sudan. It comes at a historic moment following the formal criminalization of female genital mutilation (FGM) by the government, and introduction of reforms that see girls have more control of their lives and future.
It is one of the many reasons why this year’s theme ‘My Voice, Our Equal Future’ is quite befitting. Each day, UNICEF Sudan works closely with inspiring and innovative young girls and women across the country who are raising their voice and lifting others.
Today, girls are stopping child marriage, promoting girls’ education, standing up against gender-based violence, demanding action on climate change and tackling issues of self-esteem.
One such young girl is 15-year old Maha Sayed Mostafa Koko, from Jabal Auwlia, South of Khartoum – a passionate advocate against FGM and any form of violence against girls.
There should be more protection against girls and if there are any programs that support this goal, I always love to support, the biggest issues are violence, harm and control against girls.
She first began to recognize her calling for raising awareness on the protection of girls while watching her mother, a community facilitator, play an active role in the Saleema Initiative community events. The objective of which is to highlight the positive effects of keeping a girl Saleema and ending harmful social norms through open and positive dialogue.
The Saleema initiative was launched in 2008 by the National Council of Child Welfare (NCCW) and UNICEF Sudan to support the protection of girls and has subsequently spread throughout Sudan.
“FGM is a big problem and there are so many negative impacts,” said Maha. “Every week, I used to attend at least one session or two before COVID-19. Now, my mum is provided with protective gear to be able to start again.”
Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting remains very widespread in Sudan at 86.6 per cent among women aged 15 to 49 years-old, and 31 per cent among girls aged 0-14 years.
This year’s IDGC is also a key activation moment of the global Generation Equality movement - a multi-partner advocacy and action platform for bold new gender equality impact.
Girls in Sudan are increasingly leading positive change and participating in decisions that directly affect their lives, to reimagine a better world for all shaped by their vision.
“I always wanted to be a doctor. I don’t get scared; I believe I’m brave. I want to help people and Saleema Initiative is partly medical, especially with all the harmful impact FGM can have to a girl’s body,” said Maha. “At the end of the day, the medical profession is about healing.”
Before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of schools, Maha’s teacher asked each student to choose an important subject and prepare a presentation. She chose FGM.
“I worked hard, wrote and prepared a presentation and everyone was amazed,” said the young advocate. “I learned a lot from my mum. And when she talked in the community, I used to listen to her then I began to participate, and people were pleasantly surprised.”
As her passion continued to increase, Maha and a few of her friends began a Saleema scarf initiative at school. They would talk to the girls and educate them about the subject, whoever then showed enthusiasm to spread awareness would also get a scarf – no matter whether or not they had been cut.
She believes part of the solution starts with mothers and grandmothers.
“They play a very important role because they are often head of the household, but they need more awareness about the positivity of letting go of these past traditions,” she said. “Even fathers and young men and boys, they need to be more educated on the subject.”
When talking enthusiastically about her future, Maha says education is an important factor to help her realize her dreams. Her favourite subjects at school are English and Biology.
She wants all girls to know, they can achieve anything they want because their voice is powerful.
“We should all be united. All girls have rights and should be strong and brave, and not scared of anyone,” says Maha. “Even if she is under pressure she should not worry. Anything she wants to do she can without fear.”
Every girl has the right to live free from gender-based violence, harmful social norms practices, to learn new skills towards the futures they choose and lead as a generation of activists accelerating social change.
The Saleema Initiative, launched in 2008 by the National Council for Child Welfare (NCCW) and UNICEF Sudan, supports the protection of girls from female genital mutilation/cutting, particularly in the context of efforts to promote collective abandonment of the practice at community level.
Saleema is supported by UNICEF and led by the Government of Sudan