The beautiful dark-skinned girl with wide eyes smiles widely. Her trademark scarf in hues of green, yellow and orange cascades around her hair and shoulders.
Saleema needs no introduction. Her story has always captivated listeners, as it did during a screening of a small documentary in a workshop on social norms, held by the UNICEF and Rain Barrel Research Center in Amman, Jordan.
The film opened with the words of a different Sudanese girl as she narrated her experience of undergoing female genital mutilation (FGM), her encounter with the midwife, and how her grandmother encouraged the procedure.
“In our village, every girl must be circumcised so she can get married,” the grandmother said. “It’s our tradition.”
Performed on both Muslim and Christian girls, FGM is very common in Egypt and Sudan, and also in Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia - though it is very rare elsewhere in the Arab world.
But Saleema's story, which began in 2008 as an initiative by the Sudanese society, has brought hope to efforts to stop FGM.
In Sudan, former efforts to stop FGM where either tackled by civic society, individual research efforts or scattered media coverage. All of them were top down, talking primarily about health hazards, or distinguishing the practice from religion and calling for stricter laws against the practice.
The Saleema Initiative grew out of the recognition of the importance of language in addressing the issue of FGM and changing mindsets. It tackled FGM without talking explicitly about it ,but rather introducing a brighter alternative.
Ahram Online discussed the initiative with Dr. Samira Amin, one of the founders.
Amin spent almost two decades working with UNICEF Sudan, gaining vast experience from work with government, international and national NGOs, agencies and civil society organisations.
It all starts with the right words
Amin explained how selecting the right words have always been critical in addressing social issues.
“In the colloquial language in Sudan, people have always chosen to describe FGM as 'tahoor,' which means pure. Needless to say how this represented a challenge, as Sudanese culture accordingly associated the act of FGM with a much respected value: purity," she explained.
“In addition to that, the colloquial word that described women and girls who did not undergo FGM was 'ghalfaa,' which has a very negative meaning of impurity and obscenity,” Samira added.
So the idea was to present the new initiative by carefully choosing a name: Saleema.
"Saleema is a picture of a girl that is uncut, and her name in Arabic means: pure, complete, unharmed and intact, all of which conform to the highly cherished values of preserving the purity of a girl," Samira continued.
"The success of Saleema was based on many factors, most importantly is the fact that her name created a paradigm shift in terms of acknowledging purity of the girl without contradicting the core values of the community. It emerged from the community itself without being imposed," she said.
Saleema colors became a household name
The idea was to provide communities with a "toolkit," including various communication activities and materials to encourage rethinking about FGM.
“We said that 'God created the girl Saleema, so let her grow Saleema,' so the same values were preserved, but were linked with the Saleema tools,” Samira explained.
These tools would come to play a powerful role in the initiative's efforts.
They came in two forms: multimedia materials broadcast on TV and radio, and small print materials with training activities aimed directly at the communities.
A starting point
The initiative's success in part stemmed from the discontinuation of the use of criticism and pointing out the harmful effects of FGM.
"Instead, we heard people, let them talk and express their troubles, then we went ahead to present the picture of Saleema, portraying her as a joyful, happy and successful alternative. This clicked with the community on the spot," Samira said.
"The whole idea was not to create a sudden improvement in the situation at once, but rather to create a discussion, and prompt minds to question and argue. This eventually created change," she explained. "It was enough with the gruesome pictures in campaigns, enough with blood; it was time to talk about an appealing alternative, for listeners. We lent an ear, heard their anguish and stories unfold, before we talked about a Saleema."
"A new, consistent mass media -- appealing to a wide audience -- was created, avoiding top-down talk, as well as polarised debates. Saleema became a household name, and that was when success began."
According to UNICEF, a survey in 2014 showed that now more than 50 percent of Sudanese women believe the practice should be discontinued amid growing awareness about its health dangers.
According to the World Health Organization, more than 200 million girls and women have been cut in 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
In Egypt, the procedure was banned in 2008, but a UNICEF study in 2016 showed that 87 percent of women between the ages of 15 to 49 in Egypt have been subjected to the procedure, which is still viewed as a method to promote chastity.
In the same year, Egypt's House of Representatives approved a cabinet bill amending the law criminalising FGM, and declaring the practice a felony, as well as imposing stricter punishments for those convicted of performing the procedure.
Although FGM by its very nature leads to deformity, Egyptian law does not consider the act in itself as leading to "permanent deformity."
Samira is optimistic regarding the future. “Egypt and Sudan have always been intertwined, their history and roots are linked together and I am sure that both countries’ endeavours to put an end to FGM will pay off and succeed at the end."
"The success of Saleema stems from the fact that the name became a household name in Sudanese society. The beginning of the change was when debate began, and discussions were spurred," she said.
"Saleema was a starting point, and now younger generations must finish what we started,” she concluded.