Originally here, for the Huffington Post.
By H’Rina DeTroy
Sudan has tried to eradicate female genital mutilation since 1946 to little avail. But now women’s health groups have taken the crusade in their hands–or rather, their own painted hands–in an effort to subvert the practice.
NGOs are training midwives and henna artists to cooperate using a secret code communicated through henna tattoos. Called the henna technique, a special design dyed temporarily on the skin can indicate to a midwife that a mother wants to avoid genital mutilation on her daughter. The tattoos serve as a bridge to discuss what is traditionally taboo. In turn, a midwife can stage a fake circumcision.
“It’s underground,” said Mawahib Mohamed of the Sudan Council of Volunteer Agencies (SCOVA). “It’s totally something that women would invent.” She said that midwives from the eastern and mountainous Nuer region invented the technique.
Mohamed said that SCOVA supports organizations dedicated to social and health-centered initiatives, like educating midwives about hygiene, immunizations and the risks of FGM. In Sudan, midwives help deliver babies and circumcise the girls after they reach the age of 5.
Normally, NGOs train midwives on how to counsel mothers about the dangers of FGM. Now they are taking bolder steps, showing midwives how to make a bogus ceremony, without any cutting.
But training midwives wasn’t enough. Organizations also started teaching henna artists how to talk to clients about FGM. Unlike a midwife, who is present only during birth and circumcision, the interaction with a local henna artist is frequent because henna is applied on the hands and feet for occasions like engagements, baby showers and weddings. Married women always wear a basic design.
If a mother confides that she’s afraid or worried about circumcising her daughter, a henna painter can refer the mother to a list of anti-FGM midwives. If the mother feels shy about broaching the subject, she can rely on a henna tattoo to communicate what she can’t in words.
In traditional Sudanese communities, women who speak out against circumcision can be criticized for condoning promiscuity and infidelity.
“It’s the only thing that works,” said Mohamed, who was born in Sudan and lives in Brooklyn. She wore henna on the tips of her fingers, with a heart just below her thumb.
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