Sudan criminalizes Female Genital Mutilation in historic decision



FILE – In this April 21, 2007 file photo, a Masai girl holds a protest sign during the anti-female genital mutilation (FGM) protest in Kilgoris, Kenya. The World Health Organization says the practice constitutes an “extreme form of discrimination” against women. Nearly always carried out on minors, it can result in excessive bleeding and death or cause problems including infections, complications in childbirth and depression. (AP Photo/Sayyid Azim, File)

Every year, February 6 is observed as the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). And now, this date holds significant importance in the lives of Sudanese women. 

A new law, passed by the Sudanese government on May 1, makes Female Genital Mutilation a jailable offence with substantial consequences. Under the proposed amendment to the criminal code of Sudan, anyone found guilty of practising FGM can be sentenced up to three years in prison. 

The proposed law has been brought forward by the country’s provisional government, who has been serving as the de facto ruling party after last year’s overthrow of long time President Omar-al-Bashir. The interim government includes four female ministers who are perceived to be the brains behind this law. The law must still be approved by a joint meeting of the cabinet and the current sovereign council, which will take place later this month. 

Female genital mutilation is a deeply rooted practice in Sudan and other nations in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. It is seen as a way to curb female libido in order to reinforce their cultural and conservative beliefs. 

In a 2014 report by the United Nations Children’s Fund, it was stated that 87 percent of Sudanese women and young girls between the age of 15 and 49 experienced the procedure. The process, which is called infibulation, involves the removal and repositioning of the labia to narrow the vaginal opening. Around 200 million women alive today, living in 31 countries have fallen prey to this malpractice of human rights. 

Madeline Davis, a member of the New York Women’s foundation and a visiting faculty of New York University’s political science states that it is a historic moment for Sudan and other Islamic countries. 

“The government doesn’t realize this yet, but they have just created an example for all the other 27 countries who haven’t yet criminalized this practice,” Davis said. “This can just be the trigger point in the radical development of modern-day Africa. For example, it was a well-known fact that the government of Malawi were on a lookout to create formidable laws against FGM, but were hesitant to hurt the religious sentiments of their Islamic population. Maybe this could be a perfect cue for them to act on it after all. In all honesty, after the revolution of Sudan in 2019, we never expected it to work on this law this soon.” 

Davis, an avid supporter and activist of women’s rights deeply identifies this law as a victory for feminists all around the world. 

“It is just a battle we have won,” Davis said. “The war is still left to win. Africa is the least developed continent for women’s rights and we are actively working with non-government organizations of different countries to educate women about sanitation and sexual health. Why would anyone want to curb any woman’s sexual desire? No one has the right to moderate anybody’s sexual desires. The health risks associated with FGM are indeed menacing and often fatal. The passing of this law is another victory for feminists all around the world and we pledge to abolish this practice from this planet.” 

The government’s proposal for the law is a part of a set of sweeping amendments that would abolish the death penalty for people under the age of 18 and prevet the imprisonment of pregnant women for minor crimes. 

The inspiration for this law was the health minister of Egypt, Ahmed el-Din Rady who proposed a six step plan in 2018 to eliminate FGM practices once and for all by 2030. The new government of Sudan, led by Abdalla Hamdok, who is constantly in pursuit of steering Sudan towards positive democratic and economic reforms have made many impactful decisions towards women empowerment. 

In November 2019, Sudan repealed a restrictive public order law that controlled how women acted and dressed in public. The inspiration of the FGM law was taken by the health minister of Egypt, Ahmed Emad el-Din Rady, who stated that he planned to abolish the inhuman practice from his country by 2030. 

Shailja Sharma, a professor of International Studies at DePaul university expresses her concern over the impact of laws. 

“It is still yet to be seen if the law is duly followed or not,” Sharma said. “The health ministry of Sudan should run a social awareness campaign, in integration with many NGOs to educate the ill effects of FGM and also to constantly remind people that it is now a federal crime. The government should also be alert of any kind of conflicts from the religious sections who might revolt against the passing of this law. There is a very high likelihood of this happening and the government should be adamant on their decision.” 

Sharma said she hopes that the practice of genital mutilation can be restrained all around the world. 

“The practice of genital mutilation is a social problem,” Sharma said. “It is incredibly common for young males to be circumcised all around the world too. Though the graph rate of FGM has plummeted significantly in recent times, there are still certain sections of the society where this is a customary ritual. For example, the Bohra community has been highly vocal of their practice of FGM. It is very common for the community as a whole to control women’s sexuality. It is their belief to advocate this practice and if the government decides to take significant measures against this malpractice, many young women can be saved from this oppression.” 

According to the WHO, the practice of FGM can have severe short term effects like genital tissue swelling, vaginal infection and excessive bleeding due to rupture of the clitoral artery. The long term effects of the practice include psychological distress, sexual health problems, urinary and menstrual difficulties and death in most extreme cases. 

“This practice is not only a violation of every girl child’s rights, but it also has harmful and serious consequences for a girl’s physical and mental health,” said Abdullah Fadil, UNICEF representative in Sudan. “This is why governments and communities alike must take immediate action to put an end to this practice. The intention is not to criminalize parents, and we need to exert more effort to raise awareness among different groups, including midwives, health providers, parents and youth about the amendment and promote acceptance of it.”