Hakam Ibrahim was seven when, like most Sudanese girls, she became a victim of female genital mutilation (FGM) – an age-old practice decried as horrific that the post-revolution government is now banning.
A mother-of-four in her 40s, Ibrahim vividly recalls the traumatic experience of what remains a widespread ritual in parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia despite a concerted human rights campaign to end it.
The night before it happened, Ibrahim remembers, women from her neighbourhood in the capital Khartoum were singing and ululating as they drew ceremonial henna tattoos on her hands.
On the day itself, she was taken to a small room where a woman in a white robe performed the operation to remove Ibrahim’s external genitalia.
“I was put on a bed and felt excruciating pain jolting through my body,” she said. “The pain lasted an entire week.”
The practice has long been viewed, especially in rural communities, as a “rite of passage” for girls and a way to preserve their chastity.
In Sudan nearly nine out of 10 girls fall victim to what is known as FGM or genital cutting, the UN has said.
In its most brutal form, it involves the removal of the labia and clitoris, often in unsanitary conditions and without anaesthesia.
The wound is then sewn shut, often causing cysts and infections and leaving women to suffer severe pain during sex and childbirth complications later in life.
Rights groups have for years decried as barbaric the practice which can lead to myriad physical, psychological and sexual complications and, in the most tragic cases, death.
Last week, Sudan’s cabinet approved amendments to the criminal code that would punish those who perform the operation with up to three years in prison and a fine.
It is expected to soon be ratified by Sudan’s transitional authorities.
The watershed move is part of reforms that have come since the ouster more than a year ago of strongman Omar al-Bashir after mass demonstrations in which women took a leading role.
“It is a very important step for Sudanese women and shows that we have come a long way,” said women’s rights activist Zeinab Badreddin.
The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) also welcomed the landmark decision.
“This practice is not only a violation of every girl child’s rights, it is harmful and has serious consequences for a girl’s physical and mental health,” said UNICEF representative in Khartoum Abdullah Fadil.
The UN says FGM is widespread in many countries across Africa, the Middle East and Asia, affecting the lives of millions of girls and women.
In Sudan, rights campaigners say the custom has over the past three decades spread to remote regions where it was previously not practised, including Sudan’s Nuba mountains.
In neighbouring Egypt, as in several other countries, genital cutting is now prohibited. A 2008 law punishes it with up to seven years in prison.
Sudan’s anti-FGM advocates came close to a ban in 2015 when a bill was discussed in parliament but then shot down by Bashir who caved in to pressure from some Islamic clerics.
Yet many religious leaders have spoken out against genital cutting over the years.
“Criminalising FGM does not contradict religion, and there is no [religious] text that permits female circumcision,” said 28-year-old rights activist Sherine Abu Bakr.
“It is a practice that should be fought, especially with the change happening in the country.”
Sudan has been shaken by political upheaval – most notably the April 2019 military ouster of Bashir following mass protests against his 30-year-rule, and the dismantling of his ruling Islamist party.
A transitional administration including a civilian-majority ruling body has since August taken the reins to steer the country through a mountain of social, economic and political challenges.
“While we are very happy with the amendments, the law alone is not enough,” said Manal Abdel Halim of the Salima initiative fighting FGM in Sudan.
“We still need more community awareness campaigns,” she added.
Badreddin also believes punishments should be extended to family members who pressure their female relatives into undergoing the operations.
Ibrahim agreed. “I hope that the amendments help people realise that people should keep their girls in the good physical condition in which they were born,” she said.