Volunteers join the fight against female genital mutilation in Sudan

What is FGM?
Widely practised in Sudan FGM can include:

  • Clitoridectomy: Known as sunna in Sudan, this involves the removal of the clitoral hood with or without the removal of all or part of the clitoris.

  • Excision: the removal of the clitoris together with part or all of the labia minora.

  • Infibulation: the removal of all or part of the external genitalia (clitoris, labia minora and labia majora) and stitching or narrowing of the vaginal opening, leaving a very small opening to allow for the flow of urine and menstrual blood. The girl or woman’s legs are usually bound together from the hip to the ankle so that she remains immobile for approximately 40 days to allow the wound to heal.

In the majority of cases, the procedure is carried out without local anaesthetic. The invasive nature of FGM and the unsanitary conditions under which it is performed can lead to serious health complications. These include haemorrhaging and severe pain, which may cause shock or death. The procedure can also cause numerous complications resulting from scarring and interference with the drainage of urine and menstrual blood. This can in turn lead to pelvic and back pain, dysmenorrhoea, infertility, chronic urinary tract infections, urinary stones and kidney damage.

Why is it practised?
Reasons given for the practice include the belief that it will protect virginity. Castledine (undated) explains that FGM is intended to both control women’s sexual drives and cleanse their genitalia by removing the clitoris, which is seen as masculine - the female penis. Brunner explains that uncut women are associated with promiscuity and lack of social respectability. Because of FGM’s association with purity, it is believed that girls who have not been excised have little chance of marriage in countries where FGM is practised.

It has not been without its challenges, but an innovative volunteer-based programme mobilising local communities to combat female genital mutilation (FGM) in Sudan has met with a fair amount of success.

Implemented in 2006 by the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) programme, the United Nations Population Fund (UNPF) and Ahfad University for Women in Sudan, there is evidence that this programme has lead to a change in attitude towards the culture of FGM. In some instances the practice is even being challenged.

The programme’s innovative approach includes:

  • a cooperative effort with international UNVs (deployed by United Nations Volunteers) working both alongside and under the leadership of local volunteers;
  • the inclusion of the youth and men in the campaign;
  • the use of behaviour-change communication strategies, including culturally appropriate sex education; and
  • the support of a number of strategic partners, ensuring technical support at all stages of the campaign and the use of community-based messages and tools.

Sudan’s innovative volunteer programme

The project initially set out to examine previous efforts to combat FMG in Sudan. Based on this analysis, an innovative approach was developed that involves the inclusion of all concerned in the local community through volunteerism and local community action. The project is based on three pillars: volunteering through peer and formal education, sex education, and the inclusion of males and youth among target groups.

A cooperative effort: Previous efforts to combat FGM in all its forms showed that success depends on sustainable community-based interventions that include youth of both genders. Community-based programmes that were designed and implemented by community-based organisations proved to be more sustainable over time (Bedri, 2007). UNV and the other partners capitalised on this prior knowledge and involved both international and community volunteers at different levels.

Inclusion of the youth and men: Unlike previous FGM combating efforts in Sudan, the programme includes youth volunteers as well as male and female volunteers as key actors and leaders. The project mobilised community volunteers (mainly young men and women between 18 and 25 and from the target area) to influence their community towards the abandonment of FGM.

Communication strategies: Bedri (2007) reports that the volunteers used a very effective combination of behaviour-change communication strategies. These included the innovative integration of culturally appropriate sex education – a neglected aspect of FGM.

Strategic partners: An important aspect of the UNV approach is the utilisation of partnerships with different UN organisations, NGOs, the private sector and academic institutions. These partnerships have enabled the project to receive technical support at all stages and adopt a grounded approach of producing appropriate ‘community-based’ messages and tools that are reviewed and modified in collaboration with the partners and the target community.

Critical success factors

The involvement of the Ahfad University for Women as a strategic partner provided technical assistance for the project and greatly contributed to the following aspects, seen as key to the success of the programme:

  • the involvement of the project partners in the implementation of activities at different levels;
  • co-operation with community leaders; and
  • co-operation between the project’s team members and the community workers.


A review of the pilot project revealed some challenges that will need to be taken into account in projects of this nature. These included:

  • the identification of interested community volunteers: most of the young people were unemployed and looking for paid opportunities rather than voluntary ones. Also, finding male community volunteers proved difficult;
  • the lack of incentives for community volunteers, leading to high drop-out rates;
  • ensuring cultural diversity in an area with different Sudanese tribes; and
  • high illiteracy rates.

Project results

There were several success stories of youth and women who managed to stop the circumcision of girls in their families. Almost 30% of the girls at the target female school returned uncircumcised after the summer vacation, which is when most of the FGM practices take place.

In addition, the project successfully integrated new strategies for combating FGM that included sexual education, community mobilisation through volunteerism, and the inclusion of males and youth in the strategy.

A significant strength of this pilot project was the holistic approach it took to reaching the community. A combination of innovative strategies, including entry into the community through schools and reaching the families of the students through public events, led to a greater number of people being reached and meant that families were impacted on many levels.

Using volunteers from within the community led to greater openness to consider and discuss highly sensitive topics and gave weight to the message to abandon the traditional practice.

For the full report and more information about the project, visit: http://www.worldvolunteerweb.org/fileadmin/docdb/pdf/2008/World_Volunteer_Web_stuff/Sudan__FGM__volunteerism.pdf

- Rejoice Shumba


Bedri NM (2007) Volunteering to Combat Female Genital Mutilation: The Case of Sudan and Egypt. Unpublished paper.

Brunner B (1994) The Abolition of Female Genital Mutilation. Available online: www.infoplease.com.

Castledine J (undated) Female Genital Mutilation: An Issue of Cultural Relativism or Human Rights? Mount Holuoke College. Available online: www.mtholyoke.edu/acad.