A law passed in November 2008 prohibiting female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) in the state of Southern Kordofan is unique in Sudan. But for it to translate into genuine abolition, deep-seated attitudes and misinformation will have to be overcome.
More than two-thirds of women in the state have undergone FGM/C, according to a 2006 household survey conducted by the Ministry of Health.
“All my daughters have been circumcised,” Asia Abdalla Jibril, a tea-seller, told IRIN in Kadugli, the state capital.
“The clitoris is dirty. If you undergo FGM you become clean,” Jibril said. In Sudan, the Arabic word “tahur”, which means purity, is often used for FGM.
“If a baby is sick, FGM helps,” added Jibril. “For example if a baby has duda [fever] and weight loss, the cut helps the child to grow better and gain weight.” Most girls undergo FGM at about six years old in the state.
This attitude is not unusual. “Women affected by genital mutilation do not uniformly regard it as mutilation, and may react negatively to being referred to as ‘damaged’,” according to a report on FGM in Sudan and Somalia compiled by Norway’s Country of Origin Information Centre in December 2008.
This is despite the fact, the report stated, that “the procedure is mainly carried out by so-called excisors or circumcisers with no medical qualifications. Girls who do not experience chronic pain, serious bleeding or blood poisoning after the procedure often suffer complications during pregnancy, experience great pain during sexual intercourse, and suffer other gynaeocological problems and traumas later in life.”
Common FGM/C types in the state – and elsewhere in Sudan – are the Pharaonic and Sunna forms. The former, also known as infibulation, involves the total removal of all external sex organs before the vagina is sewn up, leaving a small opening for the passing of menstrual blood, while the Sunna type is less extensive.
Childbirth in Sudan is frequently followed by reinfibulation, even though the original procedure caused problems during delivery. One of the main reasons cited for this “re-tightening” is to increase a husband’s pleasure.
Although she knew FGM/C was now banned, Jibril said she believed some form of FGM/C was still necessary. “The Pharaonic one was bad but the Sunna type is better,” she said. “It should continue.”
“It is mainly the ‘grandmothers’ who still want FGM,” said Wahid Eldeen Abed Elrahim, director of the National Council for Child Welfare, an NGO working to monitor and encourage implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
More educated men are being convinced that they should protect their children, Elrahim said, adding that it had taken 18 months of advocacy and awareness-creation before the mainly male-dominated legislative council in the state passed the FGM/C Law.
Under the new legislation, the penalty for an FGM/C offence will be 10 years’ imprisonment and compensation to the family if it caused the death of the victim. The attempt, assisting in the procedure and abetment will be penalised with two-year jail terms. Those propagating FGM/C and operating places where it is committed will also be punished and repeat offenders imprisoned for life.
In addition, information about protection against FGM/C will be issued at the birth of every girl and incorporated into school curricula.
A national strategy was launched in Sudan in 2008, with the aim of total abolition and zero tolerance within 10 years.
Elrahim said there was a long way to go. “Families are worried that their girls will not get married if they are not circumcised,” he said.
“I think it is time for the children to be allowed to decide whether or not to undergo FGM/C. But even then most will still opt for FGM/C just before marriage,” said Zainab Kordofor, a Kadugli resident.
The focus now is on creating awareness, especially among influential communities such as those in Al Fula, in the east, where the practice is particularly prevalent, to mobilise support for the collective abandonment of FGM/C.
“We are focusing on ensuring that the high-profile areas are aware of the FGM/C act and of the punishment for engaging in the practice,” said Huda Gamar Hussien, a social worker.
“The passing of the law will, however, not change behaviour overnight,” said Hussien. “Right now we are seeing movement from the Pharaonic type to Sunna, then maybe later to no FGM at all.”