Sudan Finally Outlaws Genital Mutilation
Last week the Sudanese Council of Ministers passed an amendment to the nation’s criminal code to make performing female genital mutilation a crime.
Last week the Sudanese Council of Ministers passed an amendment to the nation’s criminal code to make performing female genital mutilation a crime. The new amendment took effect when passed and violating it is punishable by up to three years in prison.
FGM in Sudan
Female genital mutilation (FGM) involves damaging and or removing some or all of a woman’s external genitalia. It is extremely widespread in Sudan. The procedure is usually preformed on girls under the age of 15 and the United Nations estimates that 88% of Sudanese women ages 15 – 49 have undergone some form of FGM. In almost 60% of those cases the procedure was not done by a medical professional. The practice can lead to a range of medical issues including problems urinating, bleeding, infections, complications during childbirth, and death. It is recognized as a violation of human rights by the World Health Organization (WHO) and other international rights organizations.
The precise reasons for continuing FGM can vary by culture and include a complex mix of social, cultural, religious, and historical factors. Decreasing or eliminating a woman’s ability to enjoy sex is one of the commonly cited reasons that FGM is perpetuated. In addition to Sudan the practice is still widespread in Egypt (91% of women ages 15-49), Guinea (97%), Somalia (98%), several other African countries, and several countries in the Middle East and Asia. A number of these countries also have laws banning FGM that have shown varying degrees of success.
A First Step to Ending the Practice
Experts believe that in many communities around Sudan 100% of women have undergone FGM. Eliminating a culturally significant practice that widespread will be a much more complicated process than the passage of an amendment and will likely take years.
Egypt passed a law banning FGM in 2008 but has not provided much enforcement of the measure and rates have not declined substantially. Other countries that have banned the practice such as Kenya and Burkina Faso have had greater success with better enforcement. Kenya’s percentage went from 28% in 2011 to 21% in 2017, with a prevalence of 11% for girls 11 – 15. Some of the most important factors in reducing FGM, in addition to enforcement, are the percentage of men and women who support ending the practice, and whether neighboring countries have also effectively taken steps to end it. Because the practice is considered taboo in Sudan, even when it was legal, it’s hard to get accurate data on how people feel about it. The fact that Egypt, which borders Sudan to the north, does not have strong enforcement in place will also present a challenge to ending the practice rapidly and may lead to an increase in cross border FGM.
There is also concern that the ban will drive the practice underground. Though the WHO advises medical professionals not to perform FGM many do so because they believe it is safer than having a non-medical professional do it. If trained medical workers adhere to the new law but others don’t, there could be increase in the coming months of instances of FGM done by untrained practitioners in Sudan.
The Difference Between Genital Mutilation and Circumcision
While female genital mutilation is sometimes referred to as “female circumcision” it is very different from male circumcision. Both practices have some religious influence but male circumcision is overall much safer and does not have the same lasting negative side effects of FGM. Male circumcision is generally not intended to control men’s behavior, but reducing or eliminating a woman’s sexual enjoyment and by extension her desire to have sex, is one of the most common goals of FGM. While male circumcision has justifiably come under increased scrutiny in recent years and is the subject of some debate, there should be no room for debate on FGM.
A New Direction for Sudan
Sudan’s current government has been in power since August of last year. In April 2019 a military coup ousted the previous leader Omar Hassan al-Bashir who had been in power for over 30 years, was the leader of the ongoing genocide in Darfur that began in 2003, and was wanted by international criminal courts on a range of charges. In August the Transitional Military Council ceded power to the Sovereignty Council of Sudan which plans to govern until 2022 while transitioning to a democracy.
Shortly after the Council passed the amendment to criminalize FGM, the Sudanese Foreign Ministry issued a statement to MSN that stressed “that the issuance of the decision represents an important positive development, and it comes in implementation of the provisions of the constitutional document, Chapter (14) for the Rights and Freedoms, in commitment of the Sudan to the international agreements related to the protection of human rights, especially the women child’s rights.” There will be many tests of the Council’s commitment to human rights, including how the ban is enforced and how they manage other forms of gender discrimination in Sudan, but passing the law less than a year after taking power is a good first indicator that Sudan’s government is moving toward equality.