Omnia was nine years old the day she was forced onto a cold metal table by her mother and grandmother and circumcised by a stranger. Now 22, she has never forgotten the incident.
"The stranger told me to take [off] my underwear, and I told her no," explained Omnia, who is now a teacher at a local school in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital. "She said to me, 'You have to.' Before I knew what was happening she was cutting me, and I started screaming.
"Then the stranger told me, 'If you scream you will bleed and I will have to tie you. So don't scream.'"
Hala, an elderly woman who also works at a local school in Khartoum, said she had experienced great difficulties in adult life as a result of being circumcised as a child.
"It took two months for my husband and I to have full [sexual] intercourse," she said. "I was crying, my husband was crying. The process of giving birth was even worse. I gave birth in Dubai. The [doctors] didn’t know what to do. So they cut me.
"I was bleeding all over the place, [and for] two days was in a coma. At every delivery, they have to cut and sew again. The ladies, after I had my two girls, wanted to sew it as it was before. Some women ask for this for the pleasure of the man … can you imagine?"
Omnia and Hala are just two of the millions of Sudanese women who have been circumcised. According to experts, circumcision of women – which is now widely known as female genital mutilation (FGM) – is more commonly practised in Sudan than anywhere else in the world.
Across the East African country, FGM is a respected custom. Although its origin is still unknown, many argue that it is practised for the sake of religious commitment or tradition. It is also believed to control the sexual appetite of a woman, thereby minimising promiscuity.
According to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), almost 90 percent of Sudan’s female population undergo “the cut” - especially in the north. In many cases it is practised in its most extreme form: infibulation or pharaonic circumcision.
Omnia experienced a "sunna style" circumcision, where only the prepuce and part of the clitoris are removed. Hala, like most Sudanese women, underwent infibulation, where the whole clitoris is removed as well as the labia minora and the labia majora.
The two sides are then stitched together to create a very small opening for urine and blood to flow. Circumcision is carried out without benefit of anaesthesia and commonly performed by someone who has no formal medical education.
"They think if they cut that part of the girl, she will never think of sex," Hala explained. "She will not bring shame on them."
Boran Boadri, a volunteer for Afhad University’s Babiker Badri Scientific Association, an organisation that has focused on the empowerment of women and the termination of FGM since 1981, disagreed.
"The Sudanese use FGM as a way not only to control the sexual appetites of women, but also to verify whether or not a woman has had sex before marriage," she said.
"This is just not true," she added. "There are women who will have sex and just before they get married, go to a midwife to get re-sewn. The husband will have no way of knowing. It is only with an uncircumcised woman that a husband can tell if his wife has had sex or not."
Omnia, Hala and Boran are currently working with local organisations that are dedicated to educating Sudanese communities about the immediate and future dangers that women and children suffer as a result of FGM.
"We continue to argue with them, but they are convinced that this is right," Boran said. "It goes back to tradition. Change happens very slowly in Sudan. I do believe that the practice of FGM will stop - but it will take another 10 to 15 years for it to stop completely."
Omnia told IRIN she had joined the fight against FGM in hopes of sharing her ideas with young girls who are considering undergoing the procedure.
"You can protect yourself from promiscuity - not by circumcision, [but] by your personality and your mind," she said. "If you grow up in the right way, you do not need to cut anything."
In September 2003, the Sudanese Health Minister Ahmed Osman Bilal expressed his government’s commitment to eradicate FGM at all levels. At a workshop in Khartoum, he said Sudan would produce a legislative framework banning the practice, which would be supported by a public statement by the president of Sudan and accompanied and followed up by education and awareness programmes.
The minister stated that FGM was now prohibited for all medical practitioners. He endorsed a recommendation to widely publicise and implement the ban and introduce stiff penalties for those who continue to perform the operations. The practise has, however, continued.
According to UNICEF, an estimated two million girls around the world -and especially in Africa - are at risk of undergoing FGM every year. The age and time at which the procedure is done differs from community to community: It can be carried out from as early as a few days after birth to immediately after the birth of a woman's first child.
Although it is widely known that FGM can have devastating and harmful consequences for a woman throughout her life, the practice continues in poor communities, most of which do not have access to modern health facilities. Medical emergencies arising from FGM are common, and often lead to death.
For more information, see the IRIN Web Special "Razor's Edge - The Controversy of Female Genital Mutilation"