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Monday, February 28, 2011

Salima: born whole and healthy

February 28, 2011
United Nations Mission in Sudan

In a society where the gross majority of women are forced to undergo female genital mutilation (FGM) during childhood, being uncircumcised often results in ostracism.

Aiming to counter stigmatization by creating a positive term to replace one sounding like a curse, the Salima campaign was initiated in Sudan by the National Council for Child Welfare (NCCW) with UNICEF support.

The campaign – incorporating clearly identifiable, vivid colours in its messaging – pursues a change in society’s stance towards the harmful practice.

Salima means whole, healthy and intact, said Amira Azhari, coordinator of the national program for the abolition of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) at NCCW in Khartoum.

The campaign uses radio spots, community discussions and hundreds of community members signing a tarqa (traditional cloth) to abandon the practice. The goal is to reform a long-ingrained notion that an uncircumcised woman is unclean and worthless.

Calling someone “ya wad el ghalfa” or “you son of an uncut woman” is a harsh insult in Sudan, where according to the 2006 Sudan Household Health Survey, 69.4 per cent of the country’s female population, or almost seven women out of 10, are subjected to FGM.

“It’s a big deal in our communities … FGM is about being a virgin,” said singer Abir Ali at a Khartoum conference on reconstructive surgery for women suffering from detrimental health effects of the most severe form of FGM, called infibulation.

Ms. Ali was donning a Salima-coloured scarf as a campaign ambassador, one of 10 prominent Sudanese chosen to engage the public in discussions about the practice through their work and appearances, and promote its abandonment.

One reason why the practice continues is a traditional conviction that a circumcised woman will remain a virgin and after marriage be faithful to her husband. Basically, it is control over a woman’s sexual desire, noted Ms. Azhari.

She mentioned other reasons, including unfounded beliefs that FGM results in cleanliness and good health, and that the practice is required by Islam.

Some religious leaders, however, argue that no proof can be found for this requirement in the Quran or in hadith, which are interpretations of the words and deeds of Prophet Mohammed.

“Female genital mutilation used to be practiced during pharaonic times more than 3,000 years ago,” observed Ahlam Ali Hassan, professor of Islamic studies at Omdurman Islamic University, adding that FGM stemmed from long before the spread of Islam.

Awareness raising was key in abolishing genital mutilation, Ms. Hassan remarked, adding that imams and religious leaders carried a great role in informing people about its harmful health and social effects.

Educating midwives, who are often also circumcisers, contributes greatly to the cause. They are leaders of rural women, said Ms. Azhari, and having midwives lead discussions about abandoning the practice is as effective as having a Sheikh support the campaign.

Many of them, however, uphold the custom for financial reasons, as FGM practitioners generally make at least 100 Sudanese pounds ($39) plus in-kind gifts for each circumcision. Encouraging midwives to discontinue the practice, Khartoum State Governor Dr. Abdelrahman Alkhidir initiated job placement of 500 midwives in the state’s healthcare institutions last year, according to Ms. Azhari.

The child welfare council began on an ambitious path in 2008 by drafting a national strategy to combat FGM. The strategy, building on six modules – including health, media, law and religion – aims to eradicate the practice in Sudan over the next 10 years or the course of a generation.

However, most Sudanese women still view the issue as private and tend to remain silent.

What is FGM?

Female genital mutilation refers to procedures involving partial or complete removal of the external female genitalia, generally performed in Sudan when a girl is between 8 and 12 years old. The process is often carried out without hygienic tools, thus contributing to infections and the spread of diseases, including hepatitis and HIV.

Besides the psychological trauma it causes, FGM can lead to a wide array of ailments, including excessive bleeding, chronic urinary tract obstruction/bladder stones, urinary incontinence, infertility, painful menstruation, obstructed labour and increased risk of bleeding and infection during childbirth. (Source: UNICEF)