illegal abortion 2 ig

Illegal Abortion: The Tragedy of Unwanted Pregnancy


The World Health Organization (WHO) defines unsafe abortion as  “the termination of an unwanted pregnancy by persons lacking the necessary skills, or in an environment lacking minimal medical standards, or both”. According to WHO, unsafe abortions are found to end 47,000 lives annually while 3 out of four of them occur in Africa and Latin America. Unsafe abortions occurfrequently in developing countries with restrictive abortion laws and limited access to health care facilities. 

Unsafe abortion and illegal abortion- Are they the same thing?

The environment in which an abortion takes place and whether the performer of the abortion is a licensed professional  determines the safety of the procedure. An illegal abortion refers to when the law prohibits women from undergoing abortions unless certain conditions apply. Those conditions vary across countries and legal frameworks.However, restictions and conditions hinder the anonymity of abortions for women which compels them to resort to unsafe abortions as their situations do not meet legal requirements. In the MENA region, only Tunisia and Turkey have legalized abortion under all grounds in the first trimester. However, most countries in the region still entertain punitive and restrictive safe abortion laws. We will be exploring Sudan’s legal status in the matter particularly in this piece.

Unsafe Abortion in Sudan:

Unsafe abortion and limited access to safe abortion health services can be attributed to two main factors: cultural and legal restrictions.

Cultural Restrictions:

In Sudan, gender roles are highly regarded and abided by. Women who choose to defy their reproductive role and undertake abortion are not only considered disgraceful, but are accused of rejecting God’s blessings upon them.

Despite the scarcity of data in Sudan, existing research indicates a high rate of unintended pregnancy which is a major reason behind why women and girls seek unsafe abortion. Unintended pregnancy is highly rampant due to factors associated with lack of awareness regarding contraception, lack of understanding for family planning, as well as systemic barriers to the different methods of contraception. The stigmatization of contraception is due to the culture’s entrenchment to gender roles and women’s tendency to produce offspring. Such an environemnt leaves women with no choice but to subject themselves to unsafe methods of abortion.  

Abortion is a clear indication of misconduct. Added to that, in Muslim communities, having children is regarded as the most noble thing to do, so even the feeling of not wanting a child is a huge mistake. Part of women’s value, and in fact the most important part for women, is to be fertile and give birth to as many possible children, and women who even think of having space between deliveries is questioned. A woman’s femininity is measured by her ability to give birth to children.

(interview, 2017)

The idea of unintended pregnancy is frequently associated with fornication and adultery. Fornication is the act of sexual intercourse outside a marriage contract. Adultery is sex outside of marriage whilst an individual is married. Fornication and adultery are widely believed to be forbidden in Islam and are punishable by 100 lashes. Thirty years of Islamist rule in Sudan has criminalized pregnancy outside marriage and labelled it as a blasphemous form of pregnancy. The use of the terms unintended pregnancy and illegal pregnancy interchangeably is key in contributing to the increase of Sudanese women and girls seeking unsafe abortions. Society’s demonization of women who seek an abortion has produced the notion that every woman seeking one  has committed fornication or adultery and is exploring ways to avoid ostracisation. While this is the case for many, the explicit connection made between abortion and illegal pregnancy has created an appalling image on abortion which disregardes other situations such as unwanted pregnancies in a marriage and pregnancy as a result of rape.

Legal restrictions:

In Sudan, the abortion law only protects women whose lives are endangered due to the pregnancy and women who are pregnant as a result of incest or rape. 

A person who intentionally causes a woman to miscarry is not guilty of an offence where (a) the miscarriage is necessary to save the mother’s life; (b) the pregnancy is the result of rape which has occurred not more than 90 days before the pregnant woman has desired to have the abortion; or (c) it is proved that the quick unborn child has died in the mother’s womb. If the pregnancy is of less than 90 days’ duration, the person who performs the illegal abortion is subject to up to three years’ imprisonment and/or payment of a fine.  If the pregnancy is of more than 90 days’ duration, the penalty is increased to up to five years’ imprisonment and payment of a fine.  In both cases, the person may be subject to the payment of compensation. 

While Sudan is the first country in the MENA region to legalize abortion in the case of rape, this  legal text remains restrictive. Not only does it exclude unintended pregnancies in and outside of marriage, but it is highly unresponsive to the cultural and legal context of rape and sexual abuse.  

The 1991 law reform to include rape came in resonse to the attention Darfur received after the documentation of sexual violence cases. However, after the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Omar Elbashir, the government expelled many of the humanitarian organizations  who were leading the documentation of incidents as well as the distribution of post-rape kits in conflict areas such as Darfur. Nevertheless, this law reform was originally made on a gendered basis. Abortion was only legalized to preserve the honor of the women who have been raped and to sustain their future chances of marriage rather than a way of preserving their rights and dignity.

The gendered basis of the law reform is translated in how rape survivors don’t often entertain this right due to the faulty legal definition of rape. In order for a woman to access abortion services, she must first prove that she has been raped, a procedure which has been accounted to be futile, discriminatory and incriminating. In article 149 of Sudan’s Criminal Code of 1991, rape is categorized as adultery without consent which is criminalized in Sudan. Proving that sexual intercourse took place forcibly requires the victims to reach out to the police and attain what is called Form 8. Form 8 is given by the police after the victim provides proof of being exposed to sexual abuse.Only after receiving the form can a woman access safe abortion at a healthcare institution. Documenting form 8 is the role of the police. Because this form is the sole means of evidence for physical injuries and bruises in Sudanese courts (except for when the victim is a child) if injuries are not documented, the survivor may face incrimination for fornication or adultery.  

With such aggravating conditions set in place to prove the occurrence of rape, many are discouraged. Those who do prove their rape often become subject to a prolonged trial process that is unlikely to end before the 90 days limit in which the abortion is legally permitted.

Available data:

Considering the aforementioned cultural and legal restrictions for abortion in Sudan, it is no surprise that available data on this issue is scarce. However, according to Women Deliver “An estimated 25.1 million unsafe abortions take place [globally] each year. Every year, approximately 6.9 million women in developing countries are treated for complications from unsafe abortions, and complications from unsafe abortions cause at least 22,800 deaths each year.”

A study conducted in Khartoum reveals that 96.7% of women seeking abortion services do so for the treatment of post-abortion complications or after undergoing an incomplete abortion. This prevails  how bureaucratic barriers and the culture of health worker are causing women and girls to seek unsafe abortions. Moreover, unsafe abortions lead to the hospitlization of of women and often times leaves them in critical conditions.

Demographics- can we identify certain groups:

Most existing content does not associate unsafe abortions with  certain age groups, ethnicities or social classes. However, it does identify variances in the way unsafe abortion takes place in relation to people with different identities.

Unsafe abortion can be described as a class issue. Many women from the upper and middle-class have access to private clinics or connect with networks of doctors who are willing to help terminate their pregnancy. Some women are also able to access the black market or web to purchase medications that aren’t available in Sudan such as misoprostol. While women in lower socioeconomic statuses  are left with no choice but to seek traditional and dangerous methods of abortion such as drinking herbs, ingesting various drugs and poisons, and inserting objects such as metals and wood into the uterus leading to critical complications that can cause death.

“I would see 16 cases of failed abortions on a given day. I would insert my hand and pull out syringes or leaves, unsanitary items that were inserted by midwives to induce a miscarriage,”

Nabil, a Sudanese doctor told IPS.

General lack of access to reproductive healthcare is more evident in conflict areas in Sudan where not only are the healthcare systems insufficient, but where sexual abuse and rape is pervasive. The use of rape as a weapon of war in Darfur was what led the Islamist Sudanese government in 1991 to legalize abortion in the occurence of rape.

In 2016, interviews conducted by Human rights watch researchers in rebel-held South Kordofan  explored accessibility to reproductive health in the area. The researchers spoke to witnesses and victims of sexual abuse, local rebel authorities, and humanitarian aid workers. 

In the photograph above, Mukuma Hamad, a volunteer health worker, holds a container of folic acid, the only assistance she can give pregnant women who visit the lone health clinic in Hadara village, in rebel-controlled Southern Kordofan.

Most of the women interviewed did not know what condoms were and were unaware of any other kind of contraceptive. Local aid workers informed the researchers that condoms are not available in the market despite the increase in gonorrhea, syphilis and Hepatitis b cases. Women are unable to protect themselves against sexually transmitted diseases, nor are they able to control their fertility.

Dr. Abdelahadi Ibrahim, a Sudanese Obstetrics and Gynaecology specialist, faced a 6 year jail sentence after being arrested for conducting safe abortions for women and girls. Dr. Ibrahim explained in an interview that he has carried out approximately 10,000 abortions during his 7 years of operation. He elaborated that 90% of the cases were university students, while the remaining 10% included the wives of migrant husbands and other kinds of cases. He believed that he was able to save 10,000 Sudanese families from the kind of instability an unintended pregnancy can cause, taking note that those families are not from planet “Mars”.

Displacement also plays a major factor. Current estimates suggest that women who are displaced due to conflicts are more vulnerable to sexual abuse which contributes to unintended pregnancy and unsafe abortion.

Seeking a safe abortion in Sudan- Bureaucratic barriers

In addition to the emotional trauma women and girls experience due to social stigmas and legal consequences, bureaucratic barriers also contribute in making this situation more burdensome.

According to the roadmap for reducing maternal and newborn mortality rates in Sudan, misoprostol is authorised to be used by mid-level health providers. In the contrary, this isn’t the case on the ground. The fear of health providers to use the materials in order to carry out illegal abortions caused for the implementation of strict procedures that are designed to prevent the “misuse” of the medication.

The Roadmap is not implemented. Decision makers are influenced by religious ideas and think that if midwives accessed the drugs they can use it for aborting unmarried girls and that would spread immorality. They are more concerned with morality than the lives of women. 

Women’s rights activist (interview, 2019)

An interview-based article explored the criminalization of abortion and looked into the policing of maternity wards. It highlighted the high level of security put in place at the entrances of those institutions especially in public hospitals. Any unescorted pregnant woman is a suspect of an illegal pregnancy.

“Are you married? Where is your husband? If you enter a maternity ward alone, you are a suspect”

(interview, 2018).

Ideally, only a woman with Form 8 should be able to access a safe abortion service. However, whether she’s able to be admitted into the hospital depends on the present doctors’ moral judgement. Some choose to abide to their professional ethics in maintaining the patient’s privacy, disregard Form 8 and treat the case as a miscarriage. However, others choose to report them to the police. Such an act highlights health institutions’ common misuse of their authority especially when legitimized by law enforcement. Healthcare institutions and legal authorities often brutalize women who seek safe abortions. This takes place in the shape of derogatory remarks that are used to describe women pregnant outside of marriage.

Security staff and police treat women badly, as if they are the judges, even before presenting her case to the legal system. One time, a woman pregnant with twins was kept handcuffed the whole time, and she was discharged directly to the prison because of illegal pregnancy.

(interview, 2018)

Seeking abortion unofficially- who can women reach?

The accessibility to safe methods of abortion in unofficial means carries a classist nature. However, even the existing networks led by healthcare and social workers who work on providing abortion pills have a confined reach out. The measures they take to ensure their safety means that women and girls can only reach them if they are aware such a network exists. This leaves many girls resorting to midwives who perform the procedure in unsafe conditions which later causes them post abortion complications. The problem with midwives does not only stop at health complications but also personal mistreatment of the girls they interact with.

“I know a girl who was circumcised by a midwife after an abortion and was told that this is to stop her from having sex again, it is clear that midwives could punish you or take advantage of your situation,”

Ali (A sudanese woman who has undergone an abortion unofficially)

What can we do?

In the light of Sudan’s current transition, there’s a glimmer of hope regarding women related legislation and women’s statuses. We have recently witnessed positive law reforms being made by the Ministry of Justice on issues such as FGM and a mother’s agency in her children’s mobility. However, there is no doubt that abortion is a notion that is extremely stigmatized,so the direction of this  conversation remains undetermined.

The absence of legislation does not mean unsafe abortions are not taking place. Reflecting on what the context is telling us, certain action points can be made:

  • To work on increasing acceptance of safe abortion amongs local communities, policy makers, and health workers.
  • To further collect and share statistics  
  • Research data on the consequences of unsafe abortion to women’s health and rights.
  • To strengthen individuals’ knowledge on family planning and the use of contraception through the implementation of comprehensive sexuality and reproduction education which can significantly lower the rate of unintended pregnancy. 
  •  Improve access to affordable contraceptive methods.



FGM in Sudan – A Comprehensive Exploration


For as old as modern history tells us, the harmful notion and act of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting has been prevalent within Sudanese communities. Years of advocacy and efforts to put an end to the act, on both a social and legislative level, have been consistent with the sentiments of women activists, civil society organizations, religious leaders, women, men, children and government bodies. Although those efforts are said to have commenced since the 40s of the past century, we can trace back the endorsement of national law that criminalizes FGM back to the year 1983, the same year which witnessed the introduction of Islamic Sharia law to the Sudanese legal framework. Almost 40 years later, a draft of a national law that criminalizes all forms of FGM has recently been passed in April 2020 under the hands of the two main political components governing Sudan’s transitional period: the sovereign council and the cabinet of ministers.

The piece aims to provide a comprehensive analysis of the different indicators and social dynamics that either validate or negate the effectiveness of this draft.

Note that the content of this piece will not explore the health and psychological effects of FGM on women and girls, nor will it examine the validity of arguments used to justify the practice with any degree of depth.

ختان الإناث في السودان...أرقام مخيفة ولا قانون يُجرمه

Background: Some Definitions & Numbers To Set The Scene

The World Health Organization (2007) defines female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) as the ‘procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs whether for cultural, religious or other non-therapeutic reasons’.

We often encounter the term female circumcision being used interchangeably with FGM/C; however, this has been deemed misleading as it implies that the procedure resembles that performed for males. The degree of cutting is far more extensive for girls; it is considered an impairment of their sexual and reproductive functions, and the consequential health complications go as far as being a daily experience of painful urination. It’s important to take note that the definition stated above doesn’t explicitly describe/classify the types of FGM/C performed for girls. But later into this piece we will look at how the type of cutting taking place is a key player which held a significant value in whether the act persisted or not, particularly in our Sudanese context.

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting is a cross-continental, cross-national and cross-cultural act. A report produced in 2012 reveals that, worldwide, 140 million women and girls are experiencing the aftermath of the act and another 3 million more are at risk. In sub-Saharan Africa and the Arab States around 200 million girls and women were exposed to this practice since 2016 [2, 3]. It is practiced in about 28 African countries as well as countries in the Middle East and South-east Asia. However, the lived realities of girls who’ve survived FGM can be found all over the world due to the increasing waves of global immirgation.

The most recent measurement of FGM prevalence across Sudan is from the MICS 2014 which found that 86.6% of women ages 15-49 have undergone some form of FGM. This places the country in UNICEF’s ‘very high prevalence’ category. More than 12 million women and girls are believed to have undergone some form of FGM.

Moreover, the attention drawn towards eradicating FGM gained momentum because of the act being recognized and addressed in international frameworks. International frameworks include the Convention on the Right of the Child (1990), the International Conference for Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo 1994 and the Declaration and Platform for Action of the Fourth World Conference on Women (FWCW), Beijing 1995.

Sudan has signed, even ratified, multiple international and regional conventions and treaties that condemn FGM and demand action against it, (those don’t include CEDAW or the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child). However, no pragmatic National Action Plans (NAPs) have been implemented in that matter.

Note that if a country signs a treaty, it merely indicates their agreement and compliance with the content of the document, while ratification means the country carries a legally binding obligation towards the agreement, under international law.

FGM in Sudan – The Cultural Perspective:

This part aims to explore the culture of FGM/C in Sudan, how has it emerged, why has it emerged, what sustained it throughout the years, and which the factors that we must focus our research on when trying to understand the act.

The act initially appeared in Sudanese communities through its affiliation to an old heritage called Pharaonic circumcision, a legacy that stood for hundreds of years, and is referred to in modern terminologies as infibulation. Infibulation (or “Type III” according to the WHO’s classification of FGM/C) is constituted by experts as the worst form of FGM to ever be practiced, in which all external female genitalia is removed. 

The reason why girls are subjected to the act is that it contributes in inactivating most of their sexual capabilities and senses. This is a product of the belief that a female’s sexual temptations and desires must not exist at all, in order for her to remain socially respected and serve as a good marriage candidate. The marriageability factor can be explained more thoroughly by saying that Sudanese men tended, or might still tend to, favour marrying a circumcised woman, due to her supposed “pure form” and controlled premarital indulgence in sexual activities. Perceived religious obligations also encourage the sustenance of FGM,  and when talking about FGM/C in the light of religious obligations, we must immediately bring attention to the idea of Sunni circumcision (Type I according to WHO’s classification). Sunni Muslims in Sudan can approximately constitute 97% of the population, with the rest adhering to Christianity and indigenous beliefs. Accordingly, we see religion being cited as a motive to practice FGM. The Sunni-considered form of cutting is less severe in the way it’s operated as only partial or full removal of the clitoris is done, but is similarly subsequent to health complications, and overall sexual and reproductive functions complexities.   Nevertheless, the association of this form of FGM/C to religion has raised a lot of public debates and disputes regarding the act, and can be attributed to as an integral resistive force for legal reformists as we will explore later in this piece.

“We do Sunna, which is the Sunna (teaching) of Prophet Mohamed (PBUH) he told UmiAtia [a woman in Prophet Mohamed’s time] not to cut much and leave parts as they are. This is the Sunna. We should do it.”

Focus group discussion, Fathers, Umbadda

The cultural beliefs surrounding the practice do not stop at controlled sexualities and religious obligations; they extend to views of “cleanliness” and “removal of unfeminine parts” of a woman. A study by the Sudan National Committee Against Traditional Practices (SNCTP) revealed that there’s a belief that during childbirth, if a baby’s head touches the clitoris, the baby will die; and in some areas it is believed that if FGM/C is not carried out, the clitoris will grow to dangle between the legs like a penis. Those cultural ideas are often associated with femininity, and how it’ll be enhanced by removing masculine parts (the clitoris), or to be smoother and more beautiful in the case of infibulation (Type III).

Furthermore, while those factors define the cultural motivations behind families choosing to expose their girls to the act, they give rise to another subtle motivation, which is acceptability within the group. Regardless of whether communities believed or made sense of those cultural beliefs, they were keen to perform the act all the same, simply because it’s a social norm. With that being said, social stigmatisation is placed at the forefront of reasons why combatting FGM/C has posed a national challenge for years to be accounted for. Abiding by those social norms positions families in a place of being accepted in the group, and therefore their social status remains intact.

“Mother, I’m scared”, in those words a girl relives the horror of her experience with FGM, an experience which she believes made her childhood “bloody”. She elaborates that the social popularity of the practice made them neglect her cries of pain as blood splashed between her legs, and instead her cries were superseded with the celebratory rituals done by the women of her family.

With the passage of time, people’s cultural perceptions towards FGM might have shifted, but the numbers still remained high. A study conducted in Niyala university explored male and female students’ rationale towards the practice, and most male students referred to religion as the the primary influence for the practice.eversibly, female students believed that religion was the least important reason for conducting the act, with traditional beliefs being the most important.

With the practice of FGM/C Type III appears another even more atrocious act known as “reinfibulation” or RI (adal in arabic, which is literal for correction and making something right). This is a procedure where genitals are re-sown after childbirth. RI is also culturally excused as a way of further tightening to mimic the narrow introitus of a virgin, meaning more pleasure for the husband, and a better chance of a preserved marriage. Significant numbers of women are affected by this form of re-circumcision (23.9% of ever-married women aged 15-49 who have ever given birth). However, this number lacks consistency, as in Kassala state for example, this number almost triples to account for 62.5% of women there. A study from 1983 showed that 80% of infibulated married women submitted themselves to reinfibulation at least 5 times.

After the deliveries, there is blood and other secretions that have to come out, but the tightness from Reinfibulation (El Adel) prevents this and I myself suffer much from this and it has caused me health problems such as inflammations, but still I do it for my husband. But I just let my daughters undergo sunna, because it is a kind of cleanliness and protection for the girl.”

Woman 38 years old

FGM in Sudan- A Demographic Perspective:

This section focuses on highlighting the relationship between the practice, and the demographics associated with it; mainly age, geographical locations, ethnicity and socioeconomic classes.


According to the 2014 Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey on Sudan, the age period in which the cutting takes place is mainly between 0-15 years of age, however 66% of girls are cut aged 5-9.

School Girls waiting for their turn for a health checkup as part of School Health Program in El-Obeid, North Kordofan state, Sudan 2017
School Girls waiting for their turn for a health checkup as part of School Health Program in El-Obeid, North Kordofan state, Sudan 2017
WHO/M. Elamin

Geographical Location: 

The former head of the National project to end FGM, Amira Azhari, quoted statistics produced by the 2010 Sudan National Household Survey (SNHS), stating that FGM prevalence on a national level has reached 65.5%, with 83.3% of the national figure concentrating in the River Nile states, and 83.4% in the Northern State. The lowest level of support for stopping FGM was found in East Darfur, with only 30.6% of the population expressing their condemnation of the act, while the highest support proved to be in Khartoum, with 70% expressing conforming views towards ending FGM.

Studies conducted throughout the years to track the prevalence of FGM in Sudan reveal that there’s a general higher frequency of the practice in the centre and north-west areas. They also tell us that there aren’t necessarily significant distinctions in FGM prevalence among urban and rural communities. 


By referring to the multi-geographical and dimensional FGM studies that have been performed, we can say that the prevalence among most ethnicities is vaguely similar. However, the Fur, Hawsa and Umbarraro ethnicities haven’t been recognized to witness prevalence in FGM activity. Despite being prominent non-practitioners, cases were still reported due to their migration to practising communities. Reports have revealed that social pressure led them to indulge in the practice in fear of being labelled as “unclean”. Spread of FGM to new groups among southerners has also been identified as a result of their contact with urban northerners. This highlights the crucial role social stigmatisation plays in perpetuating for the act. The UNFPA states that ethnicity could possibly be attributed as the most significant factor in the occurrence of FGM, almost forsaking socio-economic classes and educational levels.

Socio-Economic Class:

The relationship between the wealth of the family and whether their girl gets circumcised or not remains controversial. However, it is believed that women who’ve received higher levels of education, and are in the higher wealth quintile are more likely to condemn the act. This is further evident in how some surveys, such as the one conducted by Saleema initiative in a Sudanese university, disclosed that 56% of the girls were subjected to FGM, and the numbers are higher still for girls from rural communities, where there is less education and development. The association to education brings to light that younger women are less likely to cut their daughters, seeing as their opportunities to attain/complete higher levels of education were positively variant. Nevertheless, research has also raised attention to the fact that urban and more educated women were more inclined to perform Type I of FGM (clitoridectomy or Sunni circumcision), which contends to be less severe, rather than refraining from conducting the act altogether.

FGM in Sudan- The Stakeholders:

This section birefy indicates the different stakeholders involved in the FGM process.

Perpetrators: those constitute the individuals who carry out the cutting process.

Decision-makers: those are the groups who determine whether the act occurs or not.

Inciters: those are the groups not directly involved in the decision-making but have a great role in encouraging decision-makers to carry the act out.

By-standers: this refers to groups who might not entirely be in favour of carrying out the act, yet still choose not to interfere.

Preventers: this refers to groups who’ve had an influence in preventing the occurrence of the act.

FGM in Sudan- The Numbers, What Do They Tell Us & What Do They Don’t?

When trying to understand the magnitude of FGM practice in Sudan, it’s important to look into the different notions that make the numbers carry different meanings.

One of the issues that must be taken into consideration is how taboo of a subject FGM is. The figures in Sudan remain partial and incomplete as many cases remain unreported and unspoken about. Additionally, local communities have a hard time distinguishing between the different kinds of cutting that take place. In numerous occasions, it has been discovered that the data reported is faulty, as respondants state that they have not undergone FGM, when it’s later found that they have undergone type I of FGM (Sunni Circumcision). This tells us that there’s a misconception of type III (Pharaonic circumcision) being the only harmful one, and is therefore the one they’re being asked about when talking about genital mutilation. 

It is also important to process the numbers comparatively. For instance, if a certain measurement of FGM at a certain time shows you the prevalence among older and younger age groups, you are able to draw conclusions about the rate in which the practice is increasing or decreasing. While those comparisons can be insightful, they can also be misleading, especially between the years 2014 and 2010, where the country witnessed mass migration of communities following the seclusion of Northern Sudan from Southern Sudan. It is therefore necessary to be aware of such confounding variables and account for them when analyzing the data.

Sudan criminalises female genital mutilation (FGM) - BBC News

FGM in Sudan- The Law:

In this section, we will review the different stages that FGM legislation has went through and how it was situated and defined throughout the years.

Note that up until April 2020, National Legislation did not:

  •   Provide a clear definition of FGM 
  •   Criminalize the performance of FGM
  •   Criminalize the procurement, arrangement and/or assistance of acts of FGM
  •   Criminalize the failure to report incidents of FGM
  •    Criminalize the participation of medical professionals in acts of FGM
  •    Criminalize the practice of cross-border FGM.

Therefore, the table below will cover relevant laws.

1946First law that criminalizes FGM imposed under British colonial rule.
1973An article that prohibits FGM is added to the Criminal Act Law.
1983Sharia law is introduced and the FGM article in the Criminal Act is revoked.
1991Criminal Act Law of 1991:1.    Section 138 defines ‘wounds’ inflicted on another person (both ‘intentional’ or ‘semi-intentional’) to include the loss of an organ or any of the senses, and sets out the penalties for committing the offence.2.    Section 142 defines ‘hurt’ as causing pain to another person and is punishable accordingly.
2007Drafting of the Child Act, that was approved in 2010, was initiated.
2007Red Sea State introduces a law that criminalizes all forms of FGM. However, protests from the Beja ethnic group caused it to be revoked.
2008South Kordofan State being the first to adopt legislation explicitly against FGM – Prevention of Female Genital Mutilation Act (2008):1.   Places responsibility on parents and guardians to protect females (up to 18 years of age) from FGM.2.   Reporting incidents of FGM is the responsibility of all.3.   This law also provides for the payment of compensation to the victim of FGM by the person who performed the act.
2009Article 13 was proposed to be added to the Child Act, to explicitly criminalize all forms of FGM. However, this was denied by conservative government individuals who associated FGM with Sunna. 
2009Gadaref – the second state to introduce a law. Under Article 13 of the Child Law 2009, all harmful traditional practices (including FGM) are prohibited. This is applicable to all forms of FGM.
2010Child Act of 2010:1.    Chapter II, Article 5 protects children (under 18 years of age) from all forms of violence, harm and physical and psychological abuse; sub-section (2)(k) specifically states: ‘This Act ensures the protection of a male, or female Child, against all types and forms of violence, injury, inhuman treatment, or bodily, ethical or sexual abuse, or neglect or exploitation.’ 
2011Following the death of an infant girl in Red Sea State from FGM in 2009, pressure to criminalize the practice increased again and the Child Act 2011 reportedly included the potential for FGM prohibition under Article 10, though only for the most severe type (infibulation, also known as ‘Pharaonic Circumcision’ in Sudan). The Ministry of Health, however, has yet to issue a decree; hence, to date, the law has still not been fully enacted.
2013South Darfur – third state to impose legislation. Under Article 11 of the South Darfur State Child Act 2013, all forms of FGM are prohibited.
2016An amendment to the Federal Criminal Act of 1991 was approved by the council of ministers to criminalise all forms of FGM under a new Article 141. It was still pending parliamentary endorsement, until recently passing.
2020National law that criminalizes all forms of FGM passed.

FGM Presence in The Constitution:

The Constitution of the Republic of Sudan 2005 (amended 2007) places various obligations on the State to protect women and children. Article 15 says that the State shall protect ‘women from injustice, promote gender equality and the role of women in family, and empower them in public life.’ Articles 28 and 33 state that everyone has ‘the inherent right to life, dignity and the integrity of his person’ and that ‘[n]o person shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.’ Although the Constitution does not specifically mention FGM, Article 32 refers to harmful practices in relation to the ‘Rights of Women and Children’: The State is obliged to ‘promote women’s rights through affirmative action’, ‘combat harmful customs and traditions which undermine the dignity and status of women’ and ‘protect the rights of the child as provided in the international and regional conventions ratified by Sudan’.

Efforts Towards Ending FGM – The Challenges:

Advocacy for ending FGM can be traced back to the 1940s. However, legal advocacy is said to have been initiated by a few non-governmental organizations in the 1970s. To the present day, those efforts persist through national and international agencies, as well as academic and research bodies being part of the movements. The 2001 National Action Plan on ending FGM, and the FGM concerned chapter in the reproductive health strategy by the federal ministry of health, both have set an environment more conducive to advocacy by groups concerned with the issue. A key body that is notable in the history of advocacy against FGM is the Sudanese Network for Abolition of FGM (SUNAF), the network took the lead in drafting relevant strategies and, more importantly, in regulating them among the members of the network.

In order to formulate a complete idea of the path advocacy took throughout the years, we have to look into the main obstacles the concerned bodies faced; what were the setbacks, who was responsible for them and why?

Religious Affiliation:

The believed association of FGM to Sunna, did contribute in decreasing the prevalence of Type III of FGM (pharaonic circumcision), but on the other hand, it has created an appealing and comfortable image for Type I. The masses of people shifted to the practice of Type I, which is assumed to be consequent to a declaration made by the National Islamic Jurisprudence Council in May 2005, which stated that FGM Type I is “religiously favoured”. 

Anti-Western Sentiment:

Activities performed by CSOs were at times perceived as attempts to enforce western ideologies on Sudanese communities. They were viewed as an outsider who’s keen on disrupting the natural pattern Sudanese cultures follow, and the natural journey that a Sudanese girl must undertake. Public comments made by the former head of the Sudanese Scholars Association, Mohamed Othman Salih, could be interpreted as forms of support for that rhetoric. He refused to draw the harmful similarities between the Pharaonic and Sunni circumcisions, and was inclined to regard Sunna circumcision as “honouring for a girl, palming for her face, and responsive to the need of her husband” (“مكرمة للفتاة، وأنضر للوجه وأحوج للزوج”). 

Not only was he vocal about those perceptions, but he also denounced the advocacy efforts that aim to end all forms of FGM and urged the government to remain unresponsive to their interventions. He referred to those campaigns as “conspiring and supported by western bodies, and are looking to get rid of our beautiful traditions” (“تلك حملات مشبوهة ومدعومة من الغرب، وتريد أن تقضي على عاداتنا السمحة”)

Data Inaccuracy:

FGM, being a taboo subject, is severely underreported, and the data that does make it to the papers lack the specificity in detail (e.g. the type of FGM that was conducted). In several occasions, it was found that both victims and perpetrators of the act weren’t aware of the operational distinctions between the forms of FGM being performed. These were barriers against using data to inform advocacy plans and strategies.

An Uncollaborative Stakeholder:

One of the most important stakeholders is the perpetrator, who, as stated above, mostly constitutes midwives and health workers. Those groups were considered key target groups for active CSOs, and by interacting with them, they were able to contribute in incorporating the midwives’ oath to not practice FGM in the curricula at midwifery schools. Although this addition might sound like solace to anti-FGM groups, its translation in real life wasn’t evident. Midwives risk being the recipients of massive backlash from their communities and circles, and end up deterred from taking the oath. Nevertheless, FGM is considered a highly profitable activity for them; the increasingly deteriorating economic conditions presented an obstacle for the positive utilization of the oath.

A Conflicting Actor in The Scene:

While government bodies were primarily part of the ending of FGM campaigning, conflicting ideas within the institution itself obstructed the processes of supporting movements and criminalizing the practice on a national level. Besides the different proclaimed views that they expressed through media platforms, conservatives within the government have bogged down the endorsement of article 13 in the National Act law that called for the prohibition of all forms of FGM. Despite the fact that the former President signed a national strategy to eradicate FGM, he ordered article 13 to be removed from the final version of the law.

According to an activist:

“We attempted to insert an article, article 13, in the National Child Law. But it was dropped by the President. He was under pressure from the ICC. He started to talk to the Salafists who advocate the Sunna circumcision. They say it is Islamic. Against this backdrop, the criminalization of FGM was portrayed as an intrusion from the West; That the National Council for Child Welfare, a government institution, was working for the UN. (…). The “no” came from the supreme leader himself”

Efforts Towards Ending FGM – The Opportunities:

Recent statistics show a high prevalence of 87% among women in a reproductive age (15-49), and a lower percentage of 31% among younger women (less than 15 years of age). This positive shift in the declination of FGM practice can to a great extent be credited to the efforts exerted by the different agencies previously stated. As we already investigated challenges in navigating communities, the brighter side of the picture can also be visited; what were the factors and opportunity areas that made advocacy feasible? What worked, who was involved in it and why did it work?

Intergenerational Dialogues: 

As the National Council of Child Welfare (NCCW) is the government body that coordinates the activities concerned with FGM, they collaborated with the various active parties in developing core strategies to be implemented across Sudan. In the heart of those strategies was the use of intergenerational dialogue to open a conversation onthe topic; a conversation that involves both victims and perpetrators. This was successful in reflecting how the intuitive cultural beliefs the perpetrators have can force a life long ugly reality on their victims.

Positive Connotations:

The approach of depicting a positive image for a girl who hasn’t undergone FGM defined the slogan of one of the leading initiatives in the space: ‘Every girl is born Saleema; let her grow up Saleema.’  “Saleema” initiative described an uncut girl as being “pure, intact, unharmed”. This was not only positive, but it was different and it allowed for a reversed attitude to be born; the normally derogatory phrases that were directed against uncut girls were now recast into glorifying ones.

Public Declarations of Abandonment:

Public declarations of abandonment were heedful of the kind of danger social stigmatisation and acceptability within the group pose.

It has proven to instil a sense of encouragement and solidarity within individuals who are hesitant towards ending the practice, especially those who fear facing social consequences because of that. One of the leading communities who have expressed obstinate and explicit abandonment towards the practice of FGM were the residents of Tutti Island. Inhabited by 21000 people, Tutti is still regarded as an inspiring and pioneering example of how collective consensus coming from the people themselves is a strong tool in the combat against harmful practices.

56 Tuti Island Sudan Photos and Premium High Res Pictures

“Tutti Island is a shining example of how a community can initiate and sustain an effort to end FGM,” says Dr Wesal Ahmed, team leader in WHO Sudan’s Women’s Health Unit. “We hope the other communities who have declared abandonment in the past four years can also sustain progress.”

The Use of The Religious Perspective:

To counterargue the association of FGM to Sunna was to bring forth religious text that condemns the distortion of God’s creation. They instated that FGM is a form of altering the natural body features females have. One of the campaigns that adopted this kind of approach was Almawada wal Rahma (Compassion and Mercy), which focused on advancingwomen’s rights and addressing violence against women through a religious lens.

Media Outrage & Mobilization:

Events that raise the attention of the public opinion, and by default the media, can be exemplified by the story of young Enaam Abdelwahab. Enaam lost her life at the age of only 4 due to a severe infection that she suffered from. The doctor following up with Enaam’s case insisted on dissecting the body and determining the cause of death, which was, rather unsurprisingly, her genitals being cut. Enaam’s story ignited fierce anti-FGM campaigns that were carried out through different media outlets.

The use of both modern and traditional media in advocacy was regulated on a federal and state level. Key informants and leaders’ messages were communicated to the public in local languages, and in the shape of radio programs, songs, as well as role plays. FGM relevant data was disseminated through daily newspapers and national TV channels. This activation of media channels helped in building momentum on a community level, and as a result made the work of anti-FGM advocates and legislators more feasible, specifically the groups involved in the Saleema campaign, which witnessed mass media mobilization. A media group conducted a review with the support of the UNFPA to track the efforts made in the eradication of FGM between the years 2000-2010, and results showed a total of 51 articles published on that matter, almost across all national newspapers. Male and female professional wrote in topics such as the legal status of FGM since 1946, the legal efforts made and their achievements, as well as statistical data that conveys the scientific figures attained from relevant national health surveys and studies.

The Recognition of Where The Stakeholders Are Situated:

While men are typically the decision-makers of the family, FGM is perceived by them as women’s business, and so they rarely interfere. Advocacy groups, on the other hand, soon discovered the kind of influence men can have on the process of ending FGM. Their access to other decision-makers in the bigger scheme (religious and tribal leaders) indicated that partnering with men and recognizing the transformative nature of their neutral stance is an important element in advocacy planning. 

FGM is not just a women’s issue; men also have a role to play. A UNFPA-supported Y-Peer group in East Sudan advocates ending the practice. Photo credit: UNFPA Sudan

Ahmed, one of the male facilitators in the Saleema initiative, participated in a forum conducted in 2018, which aimed to allow advocates to share the challenges and milestones that they face in their anti-FGM work. He contributed by saying:

“I contacted all the Sheikhs (religious leaders) in the village and succeeded in convincing some of them, while others stayed neutral,” said Ahmed. “We continued our efforts with families, midwives, doctors, and youth. Many public sessions and conversations were conducted.”

Additionally, in Kassala, where FGM prevalence is high, the recognition of the male partner was effective in the sense that anti-FGM male networks were built. Sheikh Mohamed Saeed was one of the people from Wad Sharefai refugee camp who attended a training on FGM, and after being exposed to the information, he was motivated to challenge the ideas of religious leaders in mosques, as well as the camp community around him. He was therefore given the name of the “Champion of change” after successfully initiating a network of men within the camp, which is eager to advocate against FGM. In the words of Sheikh Mohamed Saeed, he said:

For a long time I had the feeling that our women are suffering from the different types of violence, however, I thought life is like this.” 

Sheikh Mohamed Saeed is an advocate for change. Photo credit: UNFPA Sudan/Awad Taha

The Use of Evidence To Inform Activities:

The scope of anti-FGM work included awareness raising, advocacy, capacity building, research, and community-based projects. The use of statistics from national surveys on FGM, as well as medical studies was instrumental in drawing the attention of policy makers to the magnitude of the practice, and was informant to who should be targeted in campaigns. This led to the inclusion of male partners, key government officials, as well as religious leaders. Moreover, content relevant to health workers assisted in drafting the Medical Council Statement which set a fertile land for the FMOH strategy of 2001.

The Multi-Sectoral Constituent in Advocacy Groups:

Understanding how FGM must be tacked by a multi-sectorial approach, immensely extended the kind of institutions that engage in FGM concerned work. This can be seen in how the review of the 2001 Plan of Action, and development of a national strategy to abandon all forms of FGM, included different groups such as SUNAF (a collective of CSOs), academic institutions, legal experts and line ministries. The strategy was drafted after a thorough review of existing policies, surveys, and studies, as well as legal frameworks on a national, regional and international level. Similarly, this comprehensive approach was used in drafting the 2009 National Child Act bill, article 13, which criminalizes all forms of FGM. However, as previously mentioned, the article was removed by the council of ministers, following the release of a fatwa by the Islamic Jurisprudence Council that calls for the distinction between Pharaonic circumcision and Sunni circumcision.

Cultural Shapeshifting:

As the years passed, the traditional depiction of the FGM practice has changed on both a cultural and legislative manner. Understanding those changes and the factors which have driven them is crucial in anticipating the kind of change we might see following the recent criminalization of the act.

A quite recently published research article looked into the shifts in FGM from multiple angles. Results concluded that the drivers of those cultural shifts are more likely to cause the normalization of the practice rather than its abandonment. Those cultural drivers, as identified by the research, are as follows:

Shift From Type III To Type I (From Pharaonic To Sunna):

As has been discussed in several sections in this piece, the appeal of Sunna circumcision has tremendously increased over time. This was primarily a consequence of religious teachings practiced in different settings, including the fatwa released in 2005 by the Islamic Jurisprudence Council stating that it’s religiously favourable, and secondarily to awareness raising interventions. The introduction of the idea that Type I is religiously favourable encouraged the masses of people to settle with this option, and awareness raising interventions motivated families to seek a safer way to perform FGM. The conflict between adhering to the logical decision to make and the cultural commitments produced a middle ground: Sunna circumcision. Although the midwives’ oath of not conducting FGM has been challenged by the social shaming and ostracising the women face upon expressing defiance, it was still associated to this shift in the practiced type. The knowledge they attained after taking the oath allowed them to provide explanations in their communities, and that also assisted in realizing the danger of the cutting and preferring to go with Type I.

Medicalization of FGM:

This shift is very dangerous and concerning as it gives FGM an embellished facade, and therefore a sustainable nature. For the longest time FGM was done under the hands of the older women in the family, ones who don’t hold any medical expertise. However, the practice has witnessed a shift in the perpetrators mostly being health professionals and midwives. Health campaigns warning of the complications FGM cause have raised fear in families, and in their refusal to risk their social statuses, as well as their attachment to traditional practices, they became inclined to take their daughters to health professionals. Health professionals being naturally perceived as people who will not inflict harm upon people drove families to believe that the procedure will be safe and free of negative health consequences. The health care professionals themselves are not any less guilty, perpetrating the act while being in full awareness of the real picture. They have tended to justify this behaviour by referring to the high demand of families desiring to circumcise their daughters, and that they might resort to even more atrociously unsafe methods had they declined. Some midwives also expressed opinions about how the oath they signed doesn’t refer to type I (Sunna), but only explicitly covers type III. 

Shift in The Age of Cutting:

The shift in the practice of FGM moving from younger girls to older ones has been notable. This too is a result of the health awareness interventions that were able to reach a significant fraction of the population. People were inclined to think that an older girl might be less vulnerable and fragile and can therefore better heal from the cut. This shift is, however, not universal, as there is still an existing belief that young girls’ circumcision “cures illness”. That is besides the fact that the age factor is highly dependent on the ethnicity of the family.

Law Amendments, The Red Sea State, a Good Example:

Reflecting on the experience of the states in Sudan which have criminalized FGM can be of help in our current time.

Six states have laws in place, those being: South Kordofan, Gadarif, South Darfur, Red Sea, North Kordofan and The Northern state. Ever since their endorsement, no public information was available to refer on cases of arrest or court proceedings with relation to FGM. The situation in the Red Sea State can be looked into more thoroughly, seeing as the area is known for conservatism when it comes to women issues. As stated above, the initial criminalization happened in 2007, but the upsurge of protests headed by the Beja ethnic group caused it to be repealed. The Bejas practice infibulation (Type III), and refer to it using the term “kushabi”, which the group believes preserves honour, keeps away evil spirits and diseases, and is compatible with Islam. When the criminalization was reinstated in 2011, it was deemed successful, but activists had opposing views with regards to the activation of the law. 

Interviews conducted in 2016 revealed that FGM has not been stopped due to significant loopholes in the legal text itself. Firstly, only Type III was criminalized. Secondly, it is not referred to as “infibulation”, nor is the term “kushabi” indicated anywhere, which gives room for the law to be circumvented. Nevertheless, the law stated that in order for it to be enacted, the minister of health must issue a decree, something which he hasn’t done in all his years of service. Lastly, the law lacks a penalty for the offenders. This drove activists to make statements regarding the Red Sea State law being a political compromise, made to please both the government conservatives and the international donors who have allocated vast sums of money expecting to see some sort of comforting change.

An FGM Advocate in The Red Sea Explained in a 2016 Interview:

“When the child law was tabled, it included criminalization of the pharaonic type only. There were some supporters for the criminalization of all types but they were not able to convince the session as many of the parliamentarians were there in 2007 during tribal opposition to the law. Forbidding pharaonic circumcision is a compromise satisfying the international organizations who supported the initiatives and who are supporting the education and other services in the state, and at the same time it avoids provoking the tribal leaders.”

Passing of Article 141 in Sudan’s National Criminal Act Law. What Can We Expect?

Law amendments are not new to the case of FGM, but the question we are trying to answer is: what degree of efficacy does this law hold in the face of the practice?

Sudan criminalises female genital mutilation | Daily Mail Online

Culturally speaking, the shift doesn’t seem to embrace the root concepts that make FGM problematic, but only manifests a shallower level of awareness regarding its health effects. This is still positive, but wears a more perilous face, as it indicates that the underlying cultural beliefs are not really being challenged. We can directly see this in the medicalization issue that has previously been discussed. The insistence of health professionals to perpetrate the act despite taking the oath, and despite being in full knowledge of the danger, assures us that the enforceability of legislation is highly dependent on the organizational culture each health institution has. 

On the other hand, we should ask ourselves: to what extent is this amendment and its implementation plan responsive to the different social issues that are deeply connected to FGM? As we’ve seen in the Red Sea State example, even the terms used to define FGM play a role in the activation of the law. Does this law consider the societal repercussions an individual can face if they report a case of FGM? Does this law consider the fact of FGM being a profitable activity for midwives? Does this law consider that the prohibition of the practice in relatively official settings can mean more girls being cut in even more unsafe methods, under the hands of unskilled women? Does the law realize the possibility of FGM practice continuing, but with total neglect of celebratory rituals, meaning the practice existing, but this time with no numbers to infer its magnitude?

List of Sources:


And What About Tea Sellers? An Interview With Amoona Amin AbdelJalil

Workers belonging to the informal sector in Sudan are generally considered to be subject to economic hardships, as they rely on daily income, and don’t entertain state protection rights, due to not being officially affiliated to a certain institution. Tea ladies, being both women, and women from the working class, are from the ones mostly affected amid the political turmoil, a deteriorating economic situation, and a worldwide health crisis. Already marginalized populations are the ones who are disproportionately more harmed by the COVID-19 outbreak, and that includes tea ladies in Sudan.

AMNA interviewed a Tea lady to get insights on how this outbreak had affected her personally, in this interview, she shares with you how her livelihood has been affected, as well as how she’s been coping so far.

Please tell us a bit about yourself, and what you do?

“ My name is Amoona Amin AbdelJalil, I’m 36 years old, and I live in Alushara. I’m a widower, with 5 kids, and also bearing the responsibility of two of my nephews, my brother and my mum. In total, I’m the breadwinner for 10 people.

I work as a tea-seller in front of a grocery store within our neighbourhood in Alushara, I usually work during the evening from after sunset till midnight, however the current changes have affected my workflow. My work and income rely on god’s will, it’s very unsteady, I don’t have regular customers, I sometimes have ones from the neighbourhood, sometimes from far places, I never know. My income itself is very unsteady, it can sometimes suffice to meet my basic needs, but sometimes not. The main challenge I face as a tea seller is the inflating prices of the ingredients I need, a kilogram of sugar costs 80 SDG today, but 150 SDG tomorrow”.

Are you a member of any informal women workers union/cooperative?

“I’m not  at all participating in such a body, I don’t know anything about them and what they do”.

What do you know about Coronavirus, and how did you obtain this information?

“I know it has first been sparked in China, the symptoms are cough, headache, sore throat and fever, this is what we’ve heard, is it right?

We heard about the preventative measures and regulations from the TV and radio channels, we became adamant to stay clean 24/7”.

Were you able to apply the instructions you learnt to protect yourself from the virus?

“One should have a clean heart before anything…. I make sure to keep my hands clean while working but I can’t avoid gatherings by not going out. How can I not go out? My kids will not even have water to drink and food to eat. If we’re provided with food, we’ll stay home, might as well have some rest, I have kids that I’m both a mother and father for. Our workspace is not safe, we engage with all kinds of people and we don’t know who’s infected and who isn’t. However, the numbers have decreased with the current events”.

How has the curfew policy affected your workflow?

“My working hours have been affected of course by the curfew, my time is now more limited, and I can’t work at night where I get more customers. The work is not enough these days”.

Do you think there are certain groups within the informal sector, who might be affected more or less by this COVID-19 situation?

“I’m not sure but I think there are other women in the informal sector who might be more affected by the COVID-19 events. Some families have a man or husband who also provides, and in other cases the responsibility falls upon the woman only, I ‘ve only experienced this after becoming a widower.

In general all workers depending on daily income have their livelihoods deteriorated, contrary to people who still receive wages”.

How have you adapted to this new situation?

“ Well, I have only shifted my working hours to the morning, and of course the prices had to be increased due to the decrease in customers”.

Since the rising of those events, have you received any kind of support to help ease your situation?

“We have not received any kind of support in our area, from the government or civil society organizations. We have only interacted with our resistance committee, who led us through the prevention measures guidelines, but have not provided us with any sanitizers, gloves or face masks, they only did the talking”.

Government and civil society- What can they provide?

“We only care about the basic food supplies, we don’t want anything else, especially that Ramadan is coming close”.

Is there a final message you would like to direct towards the society, and anything else you would like to add?

“I would just like to say that we only want to secure our livelihood, and that’s all that we need. I thank you for the opportunity to let me speak”.


So, What About The Women’s Cooperatives Union? An Interview With Yousria Mohammed Zakaria

According to the UN women 2018 report, women constitute over 80% of the informal labour in Sudan. Women in the informal sector in Sudan constitute a very huge segment of society, and are considered to be marginalized, due to their inaccessibility to social services, primarily, and among other factors associated with their activity nature, as well as factors relating to their identities, such as gender, race and ethnicity. 

With the Sudanese Government’s recent announcement of commencing a 3-weeks 24-hour lock-down, AMNA conducted an interview with one of the leading individuals working in preserving and protecting the rights of women in the informal sector. She provides us with a comprehensive review of their general status, her personal experience with community-based associations that represent informal workers, and a run through the COVID-19 situation in relation to informal women workers, whether they be tea sellers, food sellers or owners of unorganized businesses.

Kindly note: Throughout this interview the terms “informal” and “unorganized” sectors are used interchangeably, to refer to workers who are part of the informal economy

Introduction: (Name, age, address, occupation, social status, nature of work)

“My name is Yousria Mohammed Zakaria, I’m 32 years old, I live in Khartoum State, Locality of Jabal Awliyaa, Mayo. I’m married, I work as a cook on social occasions, and I’m the head of the Dalo Development association (one of the daughter associations of the Women’s cooperatives union).”

Tell us more about the work the Women’s cooperatives union carries out, and your role within it?

“ The cooperatives union has been established a long time ago, but the associations in the union only got activated earlier in 2013. 13 associations were formed in the union, and today there are 26 associations part of the union. Dalo is one of the daughter associations of the union, it has been initiated due to the assistance provided by the USAID, We developed our proposal to establish the center and were successful to have a permanent headquarter called “Dome”. Dome is an eco-friendly institution, different parties contributed in its development, those including University of Khartoum, grassroots Engineers from Darfur, as well as the women residents of Mayo themselves. They took part in the primary construction of the building, lifting cement, and mixing building materials.

With regards to our association, I was assigned as it’s head in 2014. Currently, the association owns a working space, a windmill, furnaces, but we only lack the financial support. In order for us to properly operate and utilize those assets, we have faced several challenges, primarily from the residents of the area themselves, in addition to the unavailability of specialized personnel, as well as the financial matter, which plays a great role. The association today holds a training program, we equip women with skills such as sewing, embroidering, preparing pastries and baked meals, in addition to hand-manufactured materials, such as vases, wallets, footwear for men and women, bags and accessories. Our association’s activity is not restricted to the periphery of Mayo, we hold those training programs in different areas in Omdurman and Khartoum, including Alkalakla, Alsalama and Abo Adam. Holding the position of the head, I’m directly involved in the planning and organization of those activities, I also work closely and supervise the media campaigns manager, who’s responsible for gaining publicity for our events. The way we usually attain this publicity is through offline means, such as reaching out to the resistance committees of the designated areas. We try to understand their needs better, communicate to them our goals, what we’re capable of providing and how that could be of benefit. I’m present almost daily, since I’m also one of the handicrafts trainers.’

How do you think the union has eased the situation for informal workers?

“In the past, we only worked in the sectors of food and tea making, it was known that our options were either this or that. The cooperatives union contributed in breaking that stereotype, and young girls started mastering skills such as carpentry and blacksmithing, those are things our grandmothers didn’t engage in. This was one of the initial activities the union conducted, with the contribution made by SIHA initiative. 

Dalo is based in Mayo, which is not only a densely populated area, but an area inhabited by people internally displaced due to conflict, as well as people facing life and economic hardships. Those segments generally reside in Mayo because there, one house can contain 6 families, we tried to gather the residents of this area in one place in order to provide some sort of aid for them through the union and its daughter associations. Since a lot of those women work in tea selling during the day, we helped them to work on designing and selling wallets in the evening, thus securing a second source of income. They even started teaching their kids the wallets work, as it’s easy to learn. 

Our association also supports homeless children, we usually find them in the market, and it’s a revelation to them when one of the Dalo workers approaches them, teaches them how to clean and tidy themselves, provides them with a clean nutritional meal, a safe place to sleep as well as teach them a skill through which they can receive financial returns.

As mentioned, the association works on tea and food making, in addition to different kinds of skills training. The reason why we started providing the training is to break the norm of the nature of work our members perform, as well as to widen their options in generating income. Whoever wants to work on tea and food can do so, and those who don’t work at all are enrolled in the training program. Even the women who retire and can no longer do long hours of food and tea making, are encouraged to join the training program, where they can work on whatever activity that is feasible for them.

In our association’s headquarters, we have a working space where design, sewing and décor activities take place, providing sources of income for the association’s members. We also have furnaces, which we used to provide bread for women in the previous crisis, we made sure that any woman who approaches us has enough bread to feed her children. But at the time, the flour’s prices weren’t as inflated as they are now, therefore, we are currently unable to provide this sort of service, due to the unavailability of subsidized flour. Another activity we carry out is that in Eid, all our members get to prepare their baked items in the association, no one bothers to look for bakeries outside.

Being part of the association requires you to cover monthly membership fees, and by the end of the year we find out the annual amount collected through these fees. We use the amount to provide support for our members during the Holy month of Ramadan, after undergoing legal auditing for our documents, we decide how the money will be distributed. This process is primarily reliant on the circumstances our members face, we allocate amounts for those with health conditions, those in a maternity period, those who have lost a family member, those who need to travel for emergency purposes, or those who weren’t able to work due to a reason or another.

With regards to food supplies or goods in general, we sometimes receive aid from donors, and under those situations we equally divide the supplies between us, while prioritizing orphans, widows and members with especially challenging economic conditions. If we get excess supplies, we usually give them out to the people in need within Mayo.

During the period when the former regime ruled, women informal workers thought about establishing small associations and bodies within the areas that they work in, in order to protect themselves from the raids government-led forces carried out. In that way, if 3 or 4 women are working using the same boiler for example, and word spreads that there’s a raid, they can more easily transfer the information and gather their belongings before  risking them being confiscated or damaged.

When it comes to the issue of insurance, we as an association are registered within the women’s cooperatives union for food and tea sellers. When the idea of securing health insurance for the members of the union came into discussion, I, along with a group of people were responsible for supervising this process. We paid a visit for the ministry of social welfare, and discussed how the informal workers were a marginalized social category when it comes to health insurance and other social services. We came to an agreement that the health insurance will be granted for the members of the union, in addition to the women informal worker getting registered as the breadwinner of the family, allowing her to secure the insurance for her husband and children. Subhanallah the idea was appealing to the present parties, and we were able to settle the insurance issue under the condition requested. This was something we were deprived from in our sector, today, we are able to access insured health services if we or our loved ones face a relevant circumstance.

It’s important to mention that this insurance is government-supported and was released officially under the name of the Women’s cooperative union.

Do you think the union has enough reach out i.e how many women are there in the union and from how many sectors within the informal sector, how do people become part of it, and how do you make sure people from different geographical locations are members.

The union is inclusive of any area within Khartoum state, and each neighborhood has its own independent association. Two years ago, the union’s membership for tea and food sellers consisted of 26,000 members. This is only in Khartoum, besides the other states, where we’re currently coordinating the process of extending the union’s activity and have well-established associations in the rest of the states.

The associations are distributed over Khartoum State, on a locality based arrangement, in each locality, there’s more than 10-15 associations. They form a mother association for their locality, and then daughter associations are formed and become part of the union as a whole. Local and international organizations helped in establishing official headquarters for those locality-based mother associations, you’ll find fixed headquarters for the union’s associations in Omdurman, Haj Yousif, Souq Sha’abi, and our own Dalo Association headquarter in Mayo.

The membership process in the union happens in two ways. Some women hear about the union as a body which provides protection, and so they approach us, telling us what they do and where they work. According to their geographical location, their contact and National ID information is taken to complete the registration, she’s then obliged to cover a membership fee and follows up with the union’s activities through regular meetings.

The second way the membership happens is that we ourselves encounter informal workers in different areas, we approach them and introduce the union, and the kind of services it provides for members. In most cases, women agree to join us seamlessly as they’re in a position where they’ve had a fair share of suffering due to the nature of this sector.

However, our members still suffer from the problem of having official identification documents. Under the former regime’s rule, a lot of women, myself included, used to maneuver this situation of ID information by resorting to our tribes’ mayor. In that way, if I don’t have parents, siblings or any indicated family members, I am able to produce my National ID number using the name of my tribe. After the fall of El-Bashir, we got the opportunity to communicate this concern to the ministry of social welfare, and are currently planning to implement measures that ensure all members of the union have legitimate ID documents.

Describe how the deteriorating economic situation has affected the work and income of informal workers.

“We have a principle that we at the union all abide by, which is quality in the service that we provide. Because we’re adamant to keep our quality intact, our customers do not complain when we slightly increase our prices, aligning with the increase in the prices of our supplies. That way, we rest assured that our customers are secured, and we only increase our prices in a moderate way.”

Being engaged with informal female workers, do you think they have enough awareness regarding coronavirus, and if yes, how do they usually obtain such information?

“I can rate the degree of awareness to be relatively good, and the way they understand and are most receptive to information is through direct field awareness.

What we did is that we delegated members in different areas to transfer the information to the women there. Those focal points also formed sub-groups of grassroots level women who communicate the information about the virus to the other members in their own environment and in their own language. Despite the existence of awareness campaigns through other media outlets like national television, those women are unresponsive to this kind of communication, as some of them are not even Arabic-speakers or are not able to read written content. By directly conveying the message, they understand more clearly and are able to spread the information even more in their own circles and using their local languages. The information they have might be enough, but the supplies they receive to apply the information is not enough. Two years ago the union had 26,000 members, but today we have over 43,000 members, only residing in Khartoum.

We have a large batch from the union who are part of neighborhood committees and worked in awareness through those bodies.”

Do you think women in the informal sector were able to effectively apply this information, how, and why?

“With regards to self-protection, they’re only now starting to follow the health precautions and instructions. Upon receiving the information, they were determined to protect themselves, however, their life hardships pressured them to act otherwise. They’re aware the virus could be a dangerous disease, but they’re also aware that if they don’t work, their kids might starve.

On the other hand, there are numbers of them who were able to implement safety measures in their work environment. This is evident in how they stopped handshaking, and were able to maintain social distancing between them and their customers, as well as organizing a seating arrangement for customers that ensures they’re at considerable distances from each other. They were also effective in being sanitary, you’ll find that tea-sellers use a sanitizer throughout their working day, every time they’re in direct contact with a possibly infected surface. Although this is good news, the availability of sanitizers that are distributed is scarce, which means not all workers have the accessibility for those kinds of supplies.”

How is the current curfew policy affecting the work of females in the informal sector?

“By referring to the informal workers in the cooperatives union and Dalo Association, our work has been greatly affected by the COVID-19 situation. Those women who work in tea and food, used to provide services for places where social occasions take place such as clubs, or work institutions, all who’s operation had halted due to this situation. This created huge instability in their ability to provide for their families, in most cases they do not even have an amount that enables them to sustain themselves for a week long period. 

Additionally, a lot of those tea-sellers work two shifts, day and night, so when the 6 pm curfew was imposed, the mostly affected ones were the ones who worked in the night shifts. But in the union we developed what we call the “security box”, what happens is that if one has two shifts during the day, she gives up one of them for her colleague who usually works at night. In that way, we are able to support each other, as we’re aware of each other’s circumstances.

Nevertheless, even during the day’s shift tea sellers have witnessed a great decline in the number of customers they receive, due to the public’s adherence to safety measures advising against gathering spots/areas.

Part of why this is specifically aggravating for those women, is the kind of family structures that they’re part of, a lot of them say that it’s been 10 or 14 years since they’ve last seen their husbands, some of them are raising their children as widows, and others don’t even have children but bear the responsibility for children from their extended families. This tells you that one working day holds great significance for them, since they are the income generators in the family, I constantly listen to them saying that if we find the support we need, we’ll stop working, and we’ll stop for the next 3 weeks 24-hour lock-down even if we don’t find the support.

The union recently received a letter from sovereign council member Miss Aisha Musa, requesting that we formulate a certain number for the informal workers in the union, in order for the government to allocate financial amounts, as well as food supplies for them.”

Explain to us, whether you think some informal workers are affected more or less by this situation, and explain why.

“There are some women whose work is more expanded, those who work in tea-selling for an example, in addition to a second profitable activity. This gives them some kind of advantage over others who rely solely on tea-selling for example, they purchase their food items per day, and provide allowances for their kids per day as well. However, this supposedly advantaged group who have second sources of income constitute only 2000 or less out of 43,000 women in the union.

How do you think female informal workers have adapted with this situation?

“The first step in adapting with the situation was truly comprehending that this is indeed a dangerous disease, and that carrying out our normal flow of work can jeopardize both our lives and those of our loved ones.Secondly, the Women’s Cooperatives union was able to take measures that serve the members with the most challenging circumstances. They were able to allocate amounts for women who suffered from health conditions or were financially responsible for people with those kinds of conditions. We are currently seeking solutions and parties who can provide our basic essentials, most importantly healthcare needs, i.e. medicinal supplies.

In collaboration with the ministry of social welfare, we have provided them with the necessary National ID documents and prescriptions for the women in need, we are still waiting for the aid they promised, for both the food and medicinal supplies.

What has the union or co-operative that you’re part of contributed in helping the informal workers amid this pandemic?

“We worked on direct awareness with Miss Awadia Koko a month ago, we reached around 10,000 women and were able to distribute a good number of sanitizers, due to the financial assistance we received from Haggar Foundation. Those 10,000 are besides the members of the union, who have also been exposed to the health precautions instructions and were supplied with sanitizers.

Our efforts and supplies still remain insufficient in comparison with the magnitude of women this sector contains, the amount that we were able to get hold of for general supplies aid summed to 100,000 SDG, which was mostly prioritized for medicinal supplies, and still ran short to the actual need the women have. We were promised to receive mitigation food supplies that we can disperse in the union  by the ministry of social welfare, but so far nothing has happened. The situation is very challenging, every day, I get more than 500 women knocking on my door telling me how the situation is harder, now that they’re not working, and inquiring about the delivery of the promised supplies. They help each other out by sharing meals and what so, but their livelihood has deteriorated to an extent that you can never imagine.”

Do you know of any other stakeholders that have provided any kind of support for the female informal sector during this pandemic? If yes, who are they and how did they help them?

“I know of Qatar foundation, and of course, Miss Awadia Koko is quick to report all issues relevant to informal workers to higher authorities, like she did with the sovereign council. We received help from Haggar foundation when the coronavirus initially broke, and I’m also aware that Tetal soap company worked on awareness and the provision of washing soap for informal female workers.”

Currently, how do you think civil society or the government can help ease the situation for informal workers in Sudan amid the current events?

“There’s only two things, we’re a very huge social segment, and we’re in major need for food supplies. Merely getting the food supplies can relieve a lot of difficulties we face.”

What message would you like to send to society, and is there anything else you would like to add.

“I would firstly like to say that the women’s cooperatives union was going to be dissolved under the new government’s measures to dissolve such bodies. However, a letter was sent from the council of ministers requesting that the union gets excluded from this activity, as we constitute a very large segment from the society. They were also planning to establish a new governing committee, but Ostaza Awadia remained in position, due to us being a non-politically affiliated body. One of the basic principles the body stands for, is that it remains a politically neutral body, that doesn’t discriminate according to any kind of criteria, whether it be religion, race or political affiliation. As a member of the union you are free to exercise your own political activities, but in an independent manner.

I would also like to direct a message to any tea or food seller or any unorganized business owner, that you need to take into consideration your safety and your family’s safety. Stay aware that if you leave the house amid this pandemic, how many people you’re losing behind, you’re losing yourself, your children, your community and everyone in your environment. You’re viable to inflict harm in anywhere you go. Remember God, The Almighty is capable of making our lives easier, God says in Quran

“(51:56) And I did not create the jinn and mankind except to worship Me”.


If we stay home and pray, our sustenance will find it’s way to us, 3 weeks isn’t a lot, we were patient for more than 30 years, were patient during the sit-in in front of the military HQ, all we have to do now is to stay home and patient.”

ضحايا العنف المنزلي

The Shadow Pandemic

Home, not safe for many

Add another public health crisis to the toll of the new coronavirus: Mounting data suggests that domestic abuse against women is acting like an opportunistic infection, flourishing in the conditions created by the pandemic. As the national strategy against COVID -19 emphasizes that home is the safest place to be, ironically, for female domestic violence victims, home is the most unsafe place to be quarantined as they are forced to live with their abusers. Today, the United Nations recognizes domestic violence against women as a “shadow pandemic”.

LELE from eastern China, was left with a hematoma after being physically abused by her husband during lock down, she said her husband abused her through out their six year relationship, but the lock down made things much worse. In many areas in China, reports of domestic violence have increased threefold compared to the same period last year. 

On the other side of the world, several cities in the US are already reporting jumps in domestic violence cases and calls to local hotlines. In an eastern Pennsylvania town, a man who lost his job due to the pandemic shot his girlfriend in the back and then killed himself on Monday. He became “extremely upset” about coronavirus, the victim, who survived, told police

In addition to physical violence, which is not present in every abusive relationship, common tools of domestic abuse experts say, include constant surveillance; strict, detailed rules for behavior; and restrictions on access to such basic necessities as food, clothing and sanitary facilities.

Although data are scarce,  reports  from  the  United  Kingdom, Australia, India and  other  countries suggest  an  increase  in  domestic  violence  cases  since  the  COVID-19  outbreak  began. It is a pattern playing out around the world.

What is fueling this “shadow pandemic”?

“Domestic Violence is rooted in the inequities of power and control” said Katie Ray-Jones, the CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline. “The abusers feel an enormous loss of power and control over their own lives due to the pandemic, they tighten their authority at home, the one area in which they feel they have power and vent their frustration on the women in the house” 

In addition, domestic violence, already endemic everywhere, rises sharply when people are placed under the strains that come from confined living conditions and worries about their security, health and money. 

Based on early estimates, such as the Ebola epidemic where social isolation and impoverishment increased domestic violence, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the head of UN Women thinks that in countries under lockdown, domestic violence could be up by about a third.

Further research into previous traumatic events and other types of isolation offers some clues about the likely mental-health fallout causing abuse in homes. According to a rapid review of the psychological effects of quarantines, published on March 14th in the Lancet, a British medical journal, some studies suggest that the impact of quarantines can be so severe as to result in a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The condition, which may include symptoms such as hyper-vigilance, flashbacks and nightmares which can last for years, became a formal psychiatric diagnosis in 1980, when veterans were still experiencing stress from the Vietnam War, which ended in 1975. The longer a quarantine goes on, the greater the effect on people’s mental health, the more the abuse in homes.

Researchers are frustrated that findings like this have not made it through to policy makers, who continue to adopt a gender-neutral approach to pandemics. 

Domestic abuse under-reported

In addition to the fact that stigma usually causes under-reporting of domestic abuse, those responding to disasters are not aware that domestic abuse may increase in lockdowns, and are neither looking nor preparing for it; and when GBV takes the form of domestic violence, they often do not know how to respond.

As a Romanian interviewee said, ‘after the flood, people felt more like crying than fighting’. The Samoa report noted that people may be even less likely to acknowledge domestic violence in their community after a disaster, recognizing that families face increased pressures and need to ‘stand together in the face of sadness and adversity’.

What can the government and community do?

Governments and policy makers must include essential services to address violence against women in preparedness and response plans for COVID-19, fund them, and identify ways to make them accessible in the context of physical distancing measures.

Humanitarian response organizations need to include services for women subjected to violence and their children in their COVID-19 response plans and gather data on reported cases of violence against women. 

Community members should be made aware of the increased risk of violence against women during this pandemic and the need to keep in touch and support women subjected to violence, and to have information about where help for survivors is available. It is important to ensure that it is safe to connect with women when the abuser is present in the home.

With advocates worrying about the victims stuck in close proximity with abusers, unable to safely reach out for help. They are starting to promote a texting helpline, which might be easier for them to surreptitiously use even from the same room as their abuser. They’re also encouraging family members to stay in close contact with victims suffering abuse. UN Women has said that “helplines, psychosocial support and online counselling should be boosted, using technology-based solutions such as SMS, online tools and networks to expand social support, and to reach women with no access to phones or Internet.” In Spain and France, women can go to a pharmacy and request a “Mask-19”- a code word that will alert the pharmacist to contact the authorities.

The whole country must recognize the gravity of the problem, listen to women and sympathize with them. At this time, more than at any other time, women need assurance that they will be heard, and that help will be sent if they fear for their or their children’s lives. Reaching women in distress needs to be classified as an essential service. 

Take Home Message

The majority of us are in contact with domestic violence victims, survivors and perpetrators, even if we do not usually recognize it. We are their lecturers, their medical professionals, their care takers, their teachers, their social workers, their line managers and so on. If we are working in any kind of support role or direct contact role during the COVID-19 crisis it is important to remember that “working from home” brings with it very different challenges for different people. We need to be aware of how this may impact victims and perpetrators of domestic violence as well as children in the home. As the world continues to battle the coronavirus crisis, those living in dangerous situations must not be forgotten.

  • Tips for the community: Reach out to someone you’re personally worried about, if you suspect that the victim isn’t able to talk because of being overheard, give them a readily thought out line to end the call, e.g. if it is not safe to speak right now then please repeat after me “I’m sorry there is no one called Fatima here, you must have got the wrong number.”
  • Tips for coping with stress at home and actions to take if you or your family members are experiencing violence:
    • Try to maintain daily routines and make time for physical activity and sleep.
    • Use relaxation exercises (e.g. slow breathing, meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, and grounding exercises) to relieve stressful thoughts and feelings.
    • Engage in activities that in the past have helped with managing adversity.  
    • Reach out to supportive family and friends who can help practically (e.g. food, child care) as well as in coping with stress.
    • Develop a safety plan for you and your children’s safety in case the violence gets worse. This includes keeping numbers of neighbors, friends, and family whom you can call for or go to for help; have accessible important documents, money, a few personal things to take with you if you need to leave immediately; and plan how you might leave the house and get help (e.g. transport, location).
    • Keep information on violence against women hotlines, social workers, child protection, the nearest police station, and accessible shelters and support services. Be discreet so that your partner or family members do not find this information.  
Female Informal Workers

The Invisibility of Women in Sudan’s Informal Sector

A cup of tea makes its way onto my table – just as I like it, piping hot with no sugar. Before I had started looking for biscuits, they were in front of me along with my psychiatry papers and lab coat. I wondered if the Sitashai (tea seller) realized how much easier my life was because of her efforts.

Looking around, I see many like her. The second Sitashai just outside Soba Hospital, the lady who sweeps our exam center and the street-food vendor on Madani Street nearby. They work hard to earn a meagre living, whilst their stories go largely unnoticed. I realize that these women never had a safe space to vent, discuss or express their opinions and hardships openly. These thoughts unsettle the air around me.

 “Being an informal worker is hard, it’s like being behind curtains, you’re invisible, people benefit from you, but you are still unseen”

– Nawal Mustafa, an informal worker who sells sugar.


Sudan’s conservative gender norms and economic situation kept these women uneducated and dependent on the men in their lives. In a country where hundreds of thousands of husbands are dead, missing or displaced, many Sudanese women are forced to informally work as tea and food sellers, domestic workers or petty traders. They struggle to secure their families’ future in a man-controlled economy.

Musa Bungudu, country coordinator for UNAIDS, said the female informal workers were part of the “vulnerable populations in Sudan” because of their lack of education and low income”


Poverty, insecure working conditions as well as the unawareness of their rights leaves them prey to physical and verbal violence. The law provides practically no form of economic security or social safety nets that would help better working conditions for these women. . 


Not only are informal workers in the margins of Khartoum marketplaces and streets, they are in the margin of development priorities. They are denied spaces to conduct their trade and appropriate policies that protect them from extortion. An online search for numbers and statistics relating to the economic conditions of women in the informal sector comes to no avail. Women workers, their stories, and daily brawls are under-represented topics in Sudan’s economic discourse. 

“Before I moved to Al Fatih I was living in Soba, but with continuous bulldozing by the government, and taking the land from us, we decided to come here. The government should have at least given us houses but they didn’t, we are still unable to build adequate houses to live in. Even though there is no Kasha* like there was in Soba, my income is very low, and my situation is deteriorating.”

– Howida, a divorced tea lady, living in Alfath with her eight children

With a global pandemic happening, the fate of unprotected informal workers is unknown. Women who depend on street selling will suffer from curfew and business closure laws that are being enforced throughout the country.


While the women engaged in the informal sector feed the economic engine of our nation, their work and contributions largely go unrecognised. What working women like Howida need is recognition in a way that translates into consideration in urban and economic policies and plans – in the allocation of urban land, provision of basic infrastructure and transportation services, in regulations on public space and local economic development.


Perhaps if we tried to engage with the struggles of working women outside of the economic elite, we would recognise the effort needed to empower them. Informally working women are not mere embellishments to the streets of Khartoum, they are a valid component of the economy deserving of legal protection and their stories to be told.


Kasha*: Sweeps carried about by locality authorities and public order police, targeting street sellers, petty traders and tea ladies. They confiscate their goods and tools, forcing them to pay high fines to be retrieved. Cooperatives allow these women to unite, and challenge these policies that negatively affect their livelihood.