Conflict Alerts # 125, 15 July 2020
In the news
On 10 July, Sudan criminalised carrying out female genital mutilation (FGM), making it punishable by three years in jail. The Sovereign Council which comprises of military and civilian representatives of the transitional government ratified the law three months after the cabinet approved amendments to the criminal code that would punish those who perform it. Prime Minister of Sudan Abdalla Hamdok praised this decision stating that “it is an important step on the way to judicial reform and in order to achieve the slogan of the revolution - freedom, peace and justice.” Further, this decision received a positive response from other women’s rights group. The United Nations Children’s Fund in Khartoum stated, “the law will help protect girls from this barbaric practice and enable them to live in dignity, and it will help mothers who didn’t want to cut their girls, but felt they had no choice, to say ‘no’.”
Issues at large
While this is a landmark and long-awaited decision, the issues that persist are likely to develop as the following.
First, the practice remains culturally entrenched in Sudan. The prevalence of FGM in Sudan remains one of the highest in Africa where an increasing number of women and girls are subjected to being cut by medical professionals. The widespread cultural belief that exists is that it is essential for the girl/women’s reputation and future marriage prospects. Further, the practice of FGM is interwoven with a patriarchal perception in the family which connects a man's sexual pleasure to a woman's pain that eventually entails a control over women by a man. Thus, these customs, traditions, and culture have proved to be much stronger than written laws.
Second, the lack of political will and staunch Islamist policies limits freedoms of women. Although some states had banned FGM a few years ago, attempts to ban it nationally were not successful under Omar al-Bashir. In 2016, Bashir tried to introduce a national law banning the practice, however, the effort was suppressed by religious conservatives. Further, although there are no customary laws surrounding FGM in Sudan, some religious leaders support the practice claiming that criminalising it would be against the sharia laws.
Last, risk of illegal practice of FGM will continue. Many believe that this legal reform will not be able to combat the issue for the practice may just move underground or move across borders to avoid prosecution Further, another challenge is the timing of this ratification which took place amid the pandemic, limiting the spread and proper implementation of this new law on many Sudanese.
First, the law criminalizing FGM is only the first step towards eradicating this practice. Tremendous work will have to be done with the communities in Sudan to ensure that this law is followed. The key to ending FGM in Sudan is resetting the behavioural principles. With FGM deeply entrenched in the culture and being a topic of taboo, only if the community and religious leaders publicly support its rejection will the whole community nib the practice.
Second, for FGM to truly end, women must be empowered. FGM is not practised only in rural areas but in urban areas as well. Thus, along with eliminating poverty and improving education, the women-centric health issues should be mainstreamed in the public discourse to end this harmful practice. Further, a more aware generation of young Sudanese women will be able to reject this practice and demand their dues.