Female Genital Mutilation, the removal of the female genitalia, also known as female circumcision, has been condemned by the United Nations, human rights organizations and health professionals worldwide. Nevertheless, it continues to be practiced, mainly in Africa, female genital mutilation is still rampant in Sudan, with nearly 90 percent of northern Sudanese women having undergone the ordeal.
Asma is a young Sudanese woman whose greatest fear is that she will never get married. Recently, she fell in love with a man who wanted to marry her. Asma wanted to accept his proposal but she is terrified of marriage. She knows that having sex and giving birth will be very painful.
When Asma was seven-years-old a midwife removed her genitalia and sewed her vaginal opening closed. "It was bleeding because they made stitches on it and they cut all the parts. And I was sick for seven days. I couldn't walk. I was laying on the bed. My mom used to feed me and that was horrible. When I remember this until now I feel just like, astonished. I have psychological problems when I remember this," she recalled.
Asma says her mother did not want the procedure done. It was Asma's grandmother who insisted she be circumcised. "She said that this is something belonging to the traditions and customs and we can't get away from it. And at that time everyone in the Sudanese society used to have this circumcision," she said.
Despite the pain and shame associated with female circumcision, the practice still continues for a variety of reasons. Some Sudanese claim it promotes hygiene. Sudanese men place a high value on a woman who has been circumcized. Such women bring a higher bride price, which is important in this largely poor culture.
But perhaps the predominant reason for the continuation of the practice in Sudan is that some Muslims believe that the Koran calls for women to be circumcized. While some southern Sudanese Christians also practice female genital mutilation, the rate is far lower than in the Muslim north.
Health experts says female circumcision can cause medical problems, some of them fatal, such as death during childbirth. United Nations children's fund communication officer Paula Claycombe says there is no valid reason for it to continue.
"There is absolutely no justification for it a from a health point of view, of course. Everything points absolutely 100 percent against it. And also from a religious point of view, neither Islam nor Christianity nor Judaism advocate for it nor condone it. It seems to be a cultural practice that now has some religious overtones attached to it but in fact do not exist," she said.
Ms. Claycombe says prominent Sudanese religious leaders have come out against the process, saying there is no basis for it in the Koran.
Nahid Gebrella understands the difficulty of calling for an end to female circumcision in Sudan's Muslim north. Ms. Gebrella is an activist with the Sudanese Network for the Abolition of Female Genital Mutilation. She says many Muslim leaders, whom she refers to as fundamentalists for their strict interpretation of the Koran, still demand that women be circumcized.
Ms. Gebrella does not agree with their interpretation. "It is not a matter of Koran. It is a whole way of thinking and mentality of putting women down, using Islam, using any religion. Using politics, using economics. It is a battle of women's rights. When you circumcise a girl it is not only cutting her genitalia, but it is a way of suppressing her. Suppressing her and putting her down," she said.
Ms. Gebrella's ten year old daughter is not circumcized, but all of her friends are. The activist says her daughter wonders why she can't simply be like her friends.
But the attitudes of some Sudanese are changing with increased information about the dangers of the practice.
Asked if she will circumcise her daughter, Asma is adamant. "No! Of course not. I'm gonna tell my daughter that this is something bad. And she's free not to have it. And also it isn't in our Islam. And second thing, this is her right and this is her body. She is free to do anything she likes. And for my grandma and for my relatives, they understand nowadays. They understand this issue. But I'm gonna tell them also and the society that she's free to do anything she has and not to do anything that is actually bad for her," she said.
Those who are determined to end female genital mutilation say it will take an entire generation of mothers to say no, before this brutal practice is ended forever.