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Genital mutilation mars the life of Sudanese women

Ilham could not hold back the tears as she recounted how her six-year-old sister Eglal bled to death under the knife of a traditional midwife circumcising her, even though it happened way back in 1980.

Twenty-six years later, young girls in the poverty-stricken African country — ruled by an Islamist regime since a 1989 coup — are still subjected to this ancient tradition, branded by human rights organisations as ”female genital mutilation or cutting” (FGM).

On December 6, four-year-old Inaam Abdul Wahab died of severe infections. But when a diligent doctor insisted on performing an autopsy it appeared that she was also subjected to FGM.

The faces of Eglal and Inaam have now become the symbols of a campaign against female circumcision, led mostly by women who have undergone FGM themselves.

”It was a collective circumcision performed on my three younger sisters, one after the other … Some five women held tight Eglal’s limbs and head, nailing her to a table,” said Ilham, who was only nine at the time.

Eglal never stopped bleeding.

Ilham said her sisters were being subjected to infibulation, which is known as Pharaonic circumcision — the severest of three types of FGM. It involves the removal of genitalia and closure of the vaginal opening by stitching.

About 82% of women in Sudan, whose population is estimated at 40-million, have undergone infibulation, while the total percentage of women who have undergone any form of FGM is over 90, said a 2004 study by the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef).

The two other forms include the clitoridectomy, which involves full or partial amputation of the clitoris, and the ”intermediate”, which takes away the clitoris and a portion or all of the inner vaginal lips.

Under an Islamic guise, clitoridectomy is also referred to as Sunnah (tradition of the Prophet Muhammad) circumcision. But surprisingly, more Christians in Sudan practise the Sunnah method than Muslims.

Unicef statistics show that the Sunnah-method prevalence is 46% among Christians compared with 27% among Muslims, who appear to opt for the severest method, as 83% of them have undergone the Pharaonic procedure.

But women’s rights activists want all FGM types banned.

”We are against this practice in total, and not just the Pharaonic method. Women die of all [FGM] types,” said activist Nahed Jabrallah, who is a member of the Sudanese Network for the Abolition of Female Genital Mutilation, formed in 2002.

”We have the highest rate of birth deaths for women at 509 deaths in every 100 000 cases,” she told Agence France-Presse, pointing out that most circumcised women face birth complications which sometime lead to death.

Anti-FGM activists point out that women miss out on a vital part of their sexual life because of the tradition that is practised in 28 African countries. ”A circumcised woman does not ever reach full sexual satisfaction,” Jabrallah charged.

She added that infibulation — which involves stitching the vaginal opening except for a small hole for discharge of urine and menstrual blood — causes agonising pain for women during sexual intercourse and giving birth.

This pain is apparently dismissed by the majority of Sudanese men, who believe that circumcision, in addition to protecting woman from vice by curbing her sexual drive, increases their own sexual pleasure.

”Large parts of the male population believe that narrowing the [vaginal] opening would increase their own sexual satisfaction,” said activist Thuraya Ibrahim.

Mothers are usually keen to perform circumcision on their daughters ”because they have grown up in a male-dominated culture”, added Ibrahim, highlighting a traditional female ignorance of the dangers of female circumcision.

Meanwhile, the psychological impact obviously stays with a circumcised female, regardless of how old she gets, or how many kids she bears.

”I was five-years-old. I was terrified as two or three women held me tight,” said a Sudanese woman in her thirties, recalling her experience of circumcision and requesting anonymity.

”The traditional midwife who did that is around 80 years old now. I never want to look at her if I bump into her,” said the woman, who was subjected to intermediate cutting.

Another woman in her early forties said she could not forgive her mother for not protecting her from being circumcised. ”My mother thought she was already progressive enough by sparing me the Pharaonic method,” said the woman, who underwent a Sunnah cutting when she was 10 years old.

Sudanese law appears to be regressing on the issue of FGM.

A total — but never-applied — ban on Pharaonic cutting imposed in 1946 had been widened in 1974 to include other methods, except the Sunnah way. But a 1983 amendment of the criminal law dropped the issue, and a 1991 amendment under the current Islamist regime has entirely ignored it.

A May 2005 official religious edict said Sunnah cutting was ”commendable”. The same edict was recently reprinted on flyers and posters and distributed in public places, said anti-FGM male journalist Zuhair al-Sarraj. — Sapa-AFP

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