SUDAN: In Sudan, Saleema Campaign Re-Frames Debates About Female Genital Cutting
“I remember the day of my circumcision very well indeed,” said Tahani Omar Ali, a mother with a young family. “I was five years old and it was a painful day. I stayed in bed for 15 days, after which it healed, but for the rest of my life I suffered.”
Ms. Ali and her family live in a remote and sparsely populated region of northern Sudan, where female genital cutting is common. Her expression is calm while recalling her experience with the practice, but it masks great pain.
The roots of female genital cutting are tangled deep in Sudan’s social and religious traditions. They also reflect stark inequalities in the status of women and girls. The Arabic word to describe an uncut girl, for example, is a word of shame.
UNICEF is working with the support of the European Union to end female genital cutting within a generation. Here in Sudan, the ‘Saleema’ programme celebrates girls who are not cut.
“Saleema is an Arabic word which means complete, intact – whole, as god created, untouched,” explained UNICEF Child Protection Specialist Samira Ahmed.
Through the programme, regular non-formal education encourages Sudanese families to discuss taboo subjects and to consider whether cutting is compatible with human rights.
“I convince [families] by approaching them little by little, not abruptly,” said Saleema trainer Amal Mohammed Murad. “I use proper logic, gaining their friendship. I use booklets and posters and seminars, too.”
More than 100 religious leaders are now involved in the initiative, and their commitment is having a profound effect.
“There is a growing human rights movement in this country,” said Imam and former Sudanese Prime Minister Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi. “There are many who are reactionary and conservative who try to speak of human rights as cultural imperialism, but Islam is one of the greatest bastions of human rights.”
Saleema uses mass media to disseminate its message as widely as possible. It even has a ‘uniform’ – a brightly coloured scarf, worn by both men and women – that encourages conversation and diffusion of the Saleema message between communities
Defying the norm
When an entire community shares a harmful social belief, it is almost impossible for an individual to defy it, even if he or she is aware of its danger. For this reason, the Saleema campaign encourages community decision making and public declarations of abandonment.
“Abandonment should not be personal act, it should be for the whole community,” said Gamar Habani, Secretary-General of the National Council for Child Welfare.
Saleema has made a real difference in the lives of Tahani Omar Ali and her family. Armed with the facts about cutting, she and her husband, Abdul Atti Ibrahim, were able to jointly decide what is best for their daughters – and have decided to leave them uncut.
“When I came across this programme, Saleema, I consulted my wife. We were ready and prepared to respond,” said Mr. Ibrahim. “A girl is born Saleema, so leave her Saleema.”
AUTHOR: Chris Niles
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