Late last month, the Sudanese government approved an amendment to criminalise the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). Under the proposed amendment, anyone found to be performing FGM could face up to three years in prison and a fine.
Sometimes referred to as female circumcision, the controversial practice involves the deliberate removal of female genitalia without medical reason. Traditionally viewed as a way of curbing female sexual desire and preserving virginity, reasons for carrying out FGM include social acceptence, religion, and misconceptions about hygiene. In some cultures, it is considered a rite of passage into adulthood and a prerequisite for marriage.
There are no hygienic or health benefits to FGM. The procedure is often conducted without the use of anesthetics, and can cause severe fatal bleeding, painful infections, and problems urinating, as well as long term mental, sexual and reproductive complications later in life. As it is often performed without consent, FGM is considered a violation of the human rights of women, as well as a violation of the rights of children, given that the majority of females are cut before the age of 15.
According to the World Health Organisation, more than 200 million girls and women have undergone FGM worldwide. In Sudan, the practice is widespread. Almost 9 out of 10 Sudanese females have experienced the procedure, meaning that it has one of the highest FGM prevalence rates in the world.
The move to penalise FGM follows years of advocacy to stop the practice. As part of the fifth Sustainable Development Goal, the UN has set a target to eliminate FGM by 2030.
While the proposed amendment is celebrated as a victory of womens’ rights in Sudan, a final law that criminalizes FGM is yet to be formally approved, and the country may still face challenges in enforcing the legislation. “People who still believe in the practice might not report cases or act to stop FGM when they know it is happening” says Faiza Mohamed, the Africa regional director of Equality Now to Reuters. Likewise, UNICEF maintains that it needs to work very hard with communities to help enforce the new law. Moreover, the practice of FGM has survived in other countries that have banned it.
Egypt, for example, banned FGM in 2008 and further amended the law in 2016 to include penalising individuals committing the crime with up to 15 years in prison. Yet prosecutions are found to be rare, and the country is found to still have a high rate of FGM.
Similarly, there have been few prosecutions in The Gambia since it introduced a law banning the practice in 2015. Lisa Camara, a spokesperson for the Gambian rights group Safe Hands, told DW that; “When The Gambia introduced a law banning FGM in 2015, it enabled activists to go into communities and talk about it, but it did not stop the practice”. Rather, “The law has driven the cut underground”.
While legislation alone may not stop the practice which has longstanding cultural roots, penalising FGM acts as an important deterrent, and a big step towards supporting women’s rights and empowerment in the country.
Attitudes towards FGM have long been shifting in Sudan. Since 2008, six of Sudan’s 18 states have enacted laws to ban or restrict the practice. While previous efforts to introduce a national law against FGM have been quashed by religious conservatives, the current transitional government have already made enormous strives towards achieving gender equality by repealing a series of laws made by the former government which regulated women’s behavior. Indeed, women were at the forefront of the demonstrations which toppled the former President Al-Bashir last year, making up as many as two-thirds of the protesters.
Sustaining the progressive current underlying the country’s recent democratic political transformation is essential to curb FGM. In order to fully eradicate the practice, however, the country still has a long way to go. Policymakers must make an effort to reach out to community groups to ensure that the law is enforced in practice.
Key Facts: What is FGM?
Female genital mutilation (FGM) refers to all procedures that involve injury or removal of female genitalia for non-medical reasons. The recognition of its harmful physical and psychological effect has led to the use of the term female genital mutilation. However, many women who have undergone the procedure do not consider themselves to be mutilated and disagree with the term. As such, the term female genital cutting or FGC has also been adopted to refer to the practice. There are four different types of FGM:
- Type 1: Clitoridectomy: The total or partial removal of the clitoris.
- Type 2: Excision: The removal of the clitoris and labia minora.
- Type 3: Infibulation: The removal of part or all of the external genitalia and stitching or narrowing of the vaginal opening.
- Type 4: Includes any other type of intentional damage to the female genitalia such as burning, scraping, pricking or piercing genitalia.