Female genital mutilation (FGM) is the procedure or ‘ritual’ which involves the cutting or removal of all or some of the external female genitalia. FGM is practised worldwide, most common in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, with UNICEF estimating that in 2016 two-hundred million women living in thirty countries had undergone the procedure. FGM is carried out using a blade, usually conducted from a few days after birth up until puberty, with most girls being cut before the age of five; the procedure, unsurprisingly, is extremely unpleasant, with long term adverse health effects, infections, difficulty urinating and cysts. This attempt to control women’s sexuality, purity and modesty are seen as a source of honour and although there have been international efforts since the early 1970s to persuade practitioners to abandon FGM, the procedure is still common in many countries. However, Sudan, which has one of the highest rates of FGM in the world, with eighty-seven per cent of Sudanese women have been subject to the practice, looks set to outlaw the operation. This has been hailed as the start of a ‘new era’ for women’s rights in the country.
UNICEF representative in Sudan, Abdullah Fadil, said that the practice was not only a violation of every girl’s child rights, but also has serious consequences for a girl’s physical and mental health. The Sudanese government has, however, put into law that anyone found carrying out FGM will face up to three years in prison. Some states in the country banned the procedure years ago, but there have been no attempts until now to nationally ban it. This is undoubtedly a global success for female and quite simply human rights, symbolising a vital step towards gender equality internationally. A spokeswoman in Khartoum for the United Nations Children’s Fund, Salma Ismail, said that the law will help protect girls from this ‘barbaric practice’, and enable them to ‘live in dignity’, whilst also helping mothers who didn’t want to ‘cut’ their girls, but felt they had no choice to say ‘no’.
However, there is still more to be done. It is unclear whether the country’s military leaders, who make up a majority of the sovereign council, will approve the law. Not only this, but a law alone is not enough to end the practice: in many countries like Sudan, FGM is enmeshed with cultural and religious beliefs and it continues to survive in countries that have criminalised it. Despite it being illegal in Australia, an estimated 53,000 women are living with FGM. In some communities, the procedure is viewed as necessary for girls to get married, and it may therefore prove difficult to change people’s long-held views in accordance with the new law. There are also few policies in place to protect women and girls in the country, and there are still offences such as marital rape and child marriage which are not considered to be crimes. Finally, people who support and believe in the practice are unlikely to report cases or act to stop FGM even when they are aware that it is happening.
The outlawing of FGM in Sudan signals great progress for Sudanese women and will certainly act as a deterrent to those who believe in the practice. Further to this, Sudan’s decision will hopefully encourage other African countries to follow suit and outlaw the procedure. Nonetheless, the law will not change people’s mindsets or cultural beliefs, and girls will continue to be at risk until social dynamics change. Whilst one aspect of women’s health and rights has been improved, there is more to be done to protect them from marital rape, child marriage and forced childbirth.