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Female genital mutilation (FGM, also referred to as cutting) is a human rights violation of the most devastating kind. The procedure involves the removal of some (or all) of the female genitalia. It is illegal in many countries, including the UK, but legal structures have typically fallen short of their purpose. This is especially true of Sudan, a country that legally prohibits the ‘most severe form’ of FGM, and yet the prevalence of this kind is close to 85% (rising to 90% for all ‘types’ of FGM). This is because the law is rarely enforced. The unreliability of government legislation with regards to this major human rights issue has made alternative strategies essential, one innovative example of which was pioneered in Sudan.
In 2008, the National Council for Child Welfare (NCCW) collaborated on a project with UNICEF Sudan known as Saleema. The initiative was designed to shift local attitudes concerning FGM by changing the discourse around purity. In Sudan, the word ‘ghalfa’ is a word commonly used to describe a female that has not yet been cut. Women and girls who are labeled as such are deemed impure, promiscuous and/or unclean. The Saleema initiative introduced to Sudanese discourse the Arabic word ‘saleema’ meaning ‘whole, healthy in body and mind’ and in doing so, acted as a counterweight to the derogatory terminology ghalfa.
Saleema is predominantly promoted by dignitaries and respected members of the community, who introduce the concept within their circles. Additionally, a sub-initiative known as ‘Born Saleema’ is used in hospitals and health centers to educate mothers on the benefits of allowing their daughters to remain uncut. As a result of Saleema’s education drive, Sudanese attitudes around upholding tradition and preserving cultural identity are exposed as unnecessary and harmful.
Educating pro-FGM communities about the dangers inherent to the actual procedure as well as the benefits of remaining uncut (such as educating girls so they can provide for the family) is fundamental to the Saleema campaign. The Saleema initiative in this capacity, therefore, has the potential to act as a catalyst that prompts families and communities to discover and internalize a new kind of dialogue centered around female bodily health, leading to a dampened desire for FGM. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has confirmed as much, recognizing that ‘if practicing communities themselves decide to abandon FGM, [prompted by communications strategies such as Saleema] the practice can be eliminated [more] rapidly’.
By 2013, UNICEF reports indicated moderate progress had been made regarding Sudanese attitudes towards female purity and that, further still, such progress could be attributed to the efforts of the Saleema initiative. Between 2009 and 2013 for instance, the number of Sudanese communities involved in the Saleema campaign more than doubled and 460 ‘publicly declared their support for abandonment’ of FGM. With the help of grassroots organizations and NGOs, the movement built on this success, gaining international support that in 2014 culminated in a London summit in which Prime Minister David Cameron made a speech in favor of a global ban on FGM. UNICEF Sudan continues to monitor and evaluate the effects of Saleema.
In their latest annual report, UNICEF concluded that, whilst there have been challenges to the initiative, particularly from male authority figures, positive engagement with Saleema (both the term and the initiative) continues to grow. However, despite grassroots initiatives such as this, figures indicate that FGM continues to be widespread and that every day many join the 200 million women and girls worldwide who have already undergone a form of FGM. Making matters worse, population growth (driven to a large extent by poor conservative/religious communities) is also very likely to contribute to this growth in FGM and, due to the speed of this growth, will be practically impossible to contain. Clearly, initiatives like Saleema (that aim to spark positive cultural shifts) need increasing support and participation to keep up with these trends.
Between 25th November and the 10th December, activists raised awareness of gender-based violence. However, activism for FGM must not end here. Clearly, progress is recurrently subjected to new challenges, and there is still a long way to go before women and girls are protected worldwide from the atrocity that is FGM.
This is a guest blog by Ruby Purvis. If you want to write a blog for HART please look into how you can volunteer or become a HART Hero here.
Disclaimer: This blog is a space for discussion and personal reflection. Any opinions expressed within the blog are those of the author and are not necessarily held by HART. Individual authors are responsible for the accuracy of statements made on the blog