Sudan Outlaws Female Genital Mutilation

Sudan outlawed the widespread practice of female genital mutilation (FGM), marking a historic victory for women’s rights in the African country. The WHO defines female genital mutilation “as procedures that intentionally alter or cause injuries to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” Female genital mutilation is prolific in Sudan, with UNICEF reporting 1 in 9 women between the ages of 15 and 49 have undergone the procedure. The practice is present in at least 27 African countries as well as parts of Asia and the Middle East. It has been associated with religious fundamentalism and groups that do not believe in female sexual gratification or premarital relations. Sudan implemented the new law as an addition to its criminal code, introducing a possible three-year prison sentence and fine for those that continue the practice.

Religious Affairs Minister of Sudan, Nasr al-Din Mufreh, recently attended a ceremony for International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation and advocated for the end of the practice: “It is a practice that time, place, history, and science have shown to be outdated,” said Mufreh. Within recent years, UNICEF has reported a societal shift away from genital mutilation acceptance. “Today, more than half of Sudan’s women believe the practice should be discontinued,” says UNICEF.

The increase in female dissent against the practice has been supported by human rights groups and international organizations pressuring the state to reform its stance on genital mutilation. The passage of the new law has been applauded by the likes of the UN, who view the ban as a step in the right direction for the rights of women and children in the country. “The law will help protect girls from this barbaric practice and enable them to live in dignity,” said Salma Ismail, a spokeswoman for the United Nations Children’s Fund. However, Ismail notes that “This is not just about legal reforms. There’s much work to be done to ensure that society will accept this.” The fight against female genital mutilation cannot end with the outlawing of the practice. Considering the entanglement of FGM with Sudanese culture and history, full removal of the procedure will require cultural reform as well.

While the implementation of an anti-FGM law is groundbreaking for women’s rights in Sudan, it does not guarantee full enforcement of the ban. In the prior case of Egypt, which banned genital mutilation in 2008, full implementation of the law was not established until 2016 when doctors and parents that facilitated the procedures were included in the criminal order. Even with the amended bill in Egypt, persecutions for genital mutilation are rare, and operations continue regularly in secret. Thus, Sudan is at a high risk for a continuation of the practice in the black market if emphasis is not placed on educational awareness programs and hard domestic enforcement of the ban.

Female genital mutilation comes at extremely high health risk for its victims, and a lack of awareness and sexual education facilitates its continued use. Fatema, a Sudanese woman interviewed by UNICEF spoke on the procedure’s health effects, “It creates so many problems,” Fatema says. “It affects a woman during her period. It causes infections. It is a problem early in the marriage and during pregnancy and delivery. And the child is also affected.” Circulation of information regarding health risks related to female genital mutilation is necessary to discourage parents and clinicians from engaging in the procedure. Furthermore, sexual education is crucial to liberate female sexuality in the country. It is healthy and normal for females to experience sexual gratification.

Sudan has made a monumental step towards female sexual liberation. However, this does not mean that pressure from human rights groups and international organizations should cease. It is now more critical than ever for the world to keep its eyes on Sudan to ensure the ban is fully enforced. Outreach on a local level is crucial to disseminate information on the new criminal order and change cultural views of the practice. A successful implementation of the ban would revolutionary in the context of Sudanese society, and the law against female genital mutilation could prove to be the beginning of a widespread female liberation movement in the region.

Catherine Kreider