Human rights advocates hail victory as Sudan furthers efforts to end one of the world’s most contested practices within its borders.
Rabat – Sudan has criminalized female genital mutilation (FGM), making the gruesome practice punishable by three years in prison. While the new law represents a victory for human rights advocates and FGM survivors, it does not guarantee an end to the practice.
Sudan has one of the highest rates of FGM in the world. According to the UN, approximately 87% of women in the country between the ages of 14 and 49 have undergone some form of genital mutilation.
The decision to criminalize FGM comes after years of attempting to ban the practice nationwide through both global and local campaigns. Six of Sudan’s 18 states have already restricted or banned genital mutilation, but the country has had little success in curbing the practice, let alone outlawing it altogether.
The painful practice, intended to alter or completely remove parts of female genitalia, usually occurs between a girl’s infancy and age 15. There are no medically approved justifications for FGM.
The internationally recognized human rights violation is often motivated by a sociocultural desire to disrupt women’s sexual desires and thus preserve their premarital virginity and honor.
In many countries across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia where the practice is most common, bride prices for “cut” women are generally higher. Some believe that the tradition has religious affiliations, although there are no scripts supporting such claims.
In many communities, FGM is considered a rite of passage into womenhood.
There are four main kinds of FGM. Sudanese women are most often subject to what the World Health Organization calls Type III circumcision, also known as infibulation. Considerably the most severe form, infibulation involves narrowing the vaginal opening and creating a covering seal, with or without the removal of the clitoris.
The procedure itself is dangerous and irreversible, often causing infections, chronic health conditions, increased risk of infertility, complications during childbirth, problems urinating, and cysts. Women who have undergone the procedure are also reported to suffer from psychological trauma.
Enacting the law is only the first step. Changing tradition and perceptions around FGM may be the more challenging effort.
Although the new law is significant, experts warn it will not be enough to abolish FGM. Many fear that FGM will be practiced underground in black market operations.
Egypt, for example, made FGM illegal in 2008, with amendments to strengthen the law in 2016. Regardless, the UN reports 70% of Egyptian women have been cut, with too few cases brought before courts. Implementing the law remains a serious challenge.
Still, the newly adopted Sudanese law offers hope and opportunity for women. Salma Ismail, a spokeswoman for the UN Children’s Fund says, “The law will help protect girls from this barbaric practice and enable them to live in dignity.” She adds that “it will help mothers who didn’t want to cut their girls, but felt they had no choice, to say ‘no’ because now, there are consequences.”
International development organizations have poured millions of dollars into fighting the practice and educating communities about the severe risks and complications that come with it.
Worldwide, it is estimated that 1 in every 20 women has been subject to the abuse, totaling approximately 200 million girls and women alive today. The UN reports approximately $1.4 billion is spent annually treating women who were subjected to the practice.