Breaking the blade: Takeaways from Sudan’s ban on FGM

Priyal Sepaha

FGM: violations and risks

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) refers to the practice of removal (the extent varies) of the external female genitalia or any damage inflicted due to mutilation injury. FGM is a worldwide human rights issue, affecting an untraceable number of girls.

The reasons for practising FGM may vary from society to society, but the practice was primarily conceptualised to satiate a woman’s sexuality. It confirms a woman’s virginity before marriage and fidelity afterwards. The acceptance, conduct and continuation of FGM have resulted in the practice’s evolution into a custom, primarily across the Middle East and Africa. The popularity of FGM mirrors the deeply entrenched gender inequality and extreme discrimination in the world. Societies have erroneously attempted to justify it as a girl’s investiture into womanhood, a prerequisite for marriage and inheritance and thus, intrinsic to the community’s cultural heritage.

FGM has no benefits. On the contrary it poses direct and long-term complications to a woman’s physical, mental and sexual health in addition to their overall wellbeing. The immediate side effects include severe bleeding, cysts, infertility, infections, as well as complications in childbirth. World Health Organisation (WHO) has classified the practice into four types. They are: (i) clitoridectomy, partial or total removal of the clitoris; (ii) excision, partial or total removal of clitoris and labia minora; (iii) infibulations, narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal, usually formed by cutting and repositioning the inner, or outer, labia, with or without removal of the clitoris; and (iv) all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes.

It is pertinent to mention that, according to the WHO, every year, around three million girls risk being cut without their consent, before attaining the age of 15 years, making the practice a severe violation of the rights of children.  The victims suffer from trauma, painful urination, sexual intercourse and menstruation. Unskilled circumcision may also lead to scarred tissues at risk of re-opening at childbirth. FGM is beyond a catastrophic abuse of human rights; it risks the physical and mental health of millions of girls and women.

United Nations on FGM

Realising the immediate need to intensify measures of control, United Nations General Assembly, in 2012, adopted a landmark resolution, awakening the international community to work together in eliminating the cruel practice. Former UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon described the step as ‘historic’. The resolution encompasses all necessary measures, such as enforcing legislation, awareness-raising and allocating sufficient resources to safeguard women and girls from this form of violence.

The goal to eradicate harmful practices such as female genital mutilation is a part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – Goal 5. The goal was undertaken in 2015, targeted for accomplishment by 2030. These steps emphasise the rising concern and action taken by the international community to eradicate this practice.

In 2019 a UN Secretary General Report indicates a drop of nearly 25% of the cases of FGM conducted since 2000.[1] However, the report states that approximately of 200 million girls and women have gone through the traumatic experience of female genital mutilation. Even so, the number seems concerning, the actual figures are still unknown. Many nations have shyed from revealing data on FGM due to lack of political will to combat the issue.

The UN has launched many initiatives like COMMIT by UN Women and UNiTE by the Secretary-General’s aiming to end violence against women. These programs have collaborated with governments and civil society of various countries to advance legislation and social mobilisation.

Though the world has seen a significant decline in the prevalence of FGM, the distribution is uneven. The progress of countries battling with FGM vary. Another fact worth noting is the rising population of these societies. If the declining number of cases of FGM is not enough to combat with the rising population of the countries, the curve that seems to be flattening can hit a rise again.

Sudan’s victory over FGM and takeaways  

On May 2, 2020, Sudan criminalised the practice of FGM with a three-year jail sentence for the offender. The revolutionary move received applause worldwide. However, this change in Sudan did not happen in a day. Sudan accounts for the highest percentage of all cases among the twenty-nine countries, where FGM majorly exists.[2] The country has the highest FGM prevalence rate, which was a whopping 86.6%.

Moreover, Sudan practices the most severe and harmful type of FGM, known as infibulation or pharaonic circumcision. This procedure removes the female genitalia and further narrows the vaginal orifice by stitching the labia.

The Red Sea State Child Act was revised in 2011 to criminalise FGM, but the legislation could not withstand conservative political forces of Sudan. However, the amendment was inherently flawed as it merely addressed FGM and did not define it. of the lack of a definition leaves it open to interpretation and subsequently, loopholes. The amendment required the state minister of health to issue a decree forbidding FGM; yet, a decree was not issued. The most significant legal fallacy was the absence of any penalty for offenders.

The proposal of criminalising FGM was opposed by masses saying that it is un-Islamic and against the Sharia. The Salafists supported the ban of Sunni’s version, i.e. infibulation but defended the Sunna version of cutting. The debate on the extent of FGM ban seemed endless. While some states of Gedaref, Red Sea, South Kordofan, and South Darfur did succeed in banning and criminalising FGM, there were no signs of change at the national level. Bans in states were not taken seriously, and laws on FGM were massively violated.

It appears that till the last decade, the steps taken till now were political compromises, formulated to please and silence international donors and activists. Young girls and women were still subjected to this torturous practice in masses until the nationwide Saleema initiative launched in 2008.

The name ‘Saleema’ itself is means’ intact’ or ‘in a God-given condition’. It acted as a perfect choice to evoke positive connotations to encouraging parents to let their girls remain ‘Saleema.’ The campaign spread awareness about the benefits of non-cutting.  Gradually, the initiative gained UNICEF’s support and collaborated with the National Strategy to Abolish FGM/C in Sudan, supervised by the National Council on Child Welfare. Funds and support from international actors accelerated the change, and in May 2020, Sudan passed the landmark law criminalising FGM at the national level. This crusade gives hope to women worldwide.

Conclusion

Why are women still victims to such discrimination which subjects their bodies to such abuse and indignity? FGM is nothing but a cruel, medieval practice which needs urgent attention to remove the veil of silence and to bring together voices of women who suffered the cruel practice. This year, the world witnessed a paradigm shift, the end to a dogmatic custom which was degrading and torturous. It is worth appreciating that this change was brought by none other than young women, who were supported by women of their families. Sudan taught the world that it takes generations to come together and eradicate a rudimentary practice.

Is there any single stop solution to this issue? No. The practice of FGM needs to be ended with an approach which is more holistic and does not just involve a particular statute or law. Education will surely be a good starting point, but the efforts need to be accompanied by medical awareness and stringent laws on ban and penalty. The world cannot copy-paste the approach taken by Sudan; every country requires a tailored approach to fight this issue. What counts is that Sudan has set the ball rolling. This effort, if ignored, can be a forgotten ripple. However, if the world draws inspiration from Sudan, it can be the start of a metanoia in women rights.

[1] See Report of the United Nations Secretary-General, Special edition: progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals

[2] FGM is primarily concentrated in 29 countries across Africa and the Middle East. Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Somalia, and the Sudan accounts for 75% of all cases worldwide.