sudanese women
Sarah Biren
Sarah Biren
May 4, 2020 ·  6 min read

Female Genital Mutilation Outlawed in Sudan

A victory for women’s rights has been made in Sudan, where female genital mutilation has finally become outlawed. This dangerous surgery has been widespread, but many believe that it will take more than this new legislation to stop the practice. 

According to estimates from the United Nations, almost nine out of ten Sudanese women have been subjected to partial or total removal of external female genitalia, a procedure that leads to potential health and sex issues, and sometimes even death. 

Because of the new criminal code by Sudan’s transitional government that rose to power last year, anyone who performs the mutilation can face three years in prison and a fine. 

“This is a massive step for Sudan and its new government,” said Nimco Ali of the Five Foundation, an organization that works to end genital mutilation all around the world. “Africa cannot prosper unless it takes care of girls and women. They are showing this government has teeth.” 

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is done in at least 27 African countries, parts of Asia, and in the Middle East. It is most prevalent in Sudan, Egypt, Kenya, Ethiopia, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Djibouti, and Nigeria. 

“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 in Khartoum. “And it will help mothers who didn’t want to cut their girls, but felt they had no choice, to say ‘no.’” 

“Now,” she added, “there are consequences.” [1] 

Read: A 1970 Law Led to the Mass Sterilization of Native American Women. That History Still Matters

There’s Still Work to be Done 

However, one law won’t completely solve the problem, experts warn, especially in countries where FGM is a part of the people’s cultural and religious beliefs. It’s believed to be a foundation of marriage and a tradition supported by men and women. 

“This is not just about legal reforms,” Ms. Ismail said. “There’s a lot of work to be done to ensure that society will accept this.” 

Egypt had banned FGM in 2008 but the practice continued and the law was amended in 2016. These changes criminalized parents and doctors who conducted and approved the procedure. They could be imprisoned up to seven years for conducting the operation and up to 15 if it resulted in the patient’s disability or death. 

While this does sound like a step in the right direction, prosecutions occur rarely and the practice has continued more quietly than before. According to the United Nations, 70% of Egyptian women between the ages of 15 and 49 have been mutilated (usually before age 12). [2]  

This year, a 12-year-old girl from Egypt died while under the knife of a retired doctor, who was performing the mutilation without giving her any anesthetic. In February, the authorities announced the doctor and the girl’s parents to be prosecuted.  

Campaigns to end these procedures have been gaining traction worldwide. Communities have been evolving to turn against FGM and come up with different initiation ceremonies.  

One campaign in Kenya has prevented at least 15,000 girls from becoming victims of the practice, where, keep in mind, cutting has been illegal since 2011 [1]. 

The World Health Organization defines FGM as a ‘Type III circumcision.’ It involves some form of removing the inner and outer labia, and often the clitoris. The wound is then sewn shut in a procedure known as re-infibulation, which can lead to cysts, painful intercourse, and the inability to orgasm. 

Read: The Year Women Became Eligible to Vote in Each Country

The Reason Behind Female Genital Mutilation 

According to the World Health Organization, FGM is “internationally recognized as a violation of the human rights of girls and women.” This includes the rights to health, security, and physical integrity, the right to be free from torture and inhuman treatment, and in some cases, the right to life. 

There are no health benefits for FGM, and its health risks are severe. However, it continues being performed for the following reasons: 

  • In many areas where its performed, it’s considered a social norm and therefore unquestioned. 
  • It’s considered a necessary step to raise a girl and to help her get ready for adulthood and marriage. 
  • It’s intended to restrict women’s sexuality by ensuring premarital virginity and marital fidelity. FGM is meant to lower a woman’s libido and help her resist extramarital sexual acts. 
  • In some places, FGM is believed to increase a woman’s marriageability. 
  • It’s associated with ideals of modesty and femininity, by removing body parts that are thought to be ‘unclean and unfeminine.’ 
  • Although no religious scripts institute the practice, it’s believed to have religious support. 
  • Some societies uphold it as a cultural tradition. [3] 

Bad Timing 

Unfortunately, the new law may take some time to permeate in Sudan due to the severe lockdown to prevent the spread of the current pandemic. 

“The timing has been unfortunate,” said Ms. Ismail from the United Nations. “Everyone was preoccupied with Covid-19.” 

Fortunately, six of the 18 of Sudan’s states have created laws to restrict or ban FGM, but these rulings created limited success and no prosecutions, according to campaign group 28 Too Many

In 2016, Omar al-Bashir, the countries’ ruler for the past three decades, has tried to create a law banning FGM, but religious conservatives stifled it. Since then Mr. al-Bashir has been replaced by a transitional government that is composed of a balance of power between civilian and military leaders, and its planning to arrange elections in 2022. It has also made strides for women’s rights. 

Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, the new leader of this government, has women ministers leading five ministries, and the council of ministers has repealed previous laws that determined what women can study, wear, and where they could meet in public. 

However, this new government may not be a good long-term solution. Tension between the civilian and military leaders are causing turbulence, and many people fear a military coup. That’s not to say the strides being made aren’t a start in the right direction. 

A Better Future for Women’s Rights 

Nasr al-Din Mufreh, the Sudanese minister for religious affairs, has recently attended a celebration for International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation. “It is a practice that time, place, history and science have shown to be outdated,” he said, explaining that FGM had no justification in Islam. He has stated to support the campaigners’ goal of ending the procedures in Sudan for good by 2030. 

“Sudanese women along with the Egyptians and Somalis have been leading the fight against FGM,” said Nimco Ali, an anti-FGM activist who heads the Five Foundation, a global partnership to end the practice. “Sudanese women have always wanted to end FGM. Sudan took the same path as Egypt politically — and that means women can also lead and be part of the transitional government.” [4] 

[1] Declan Walsh. In a Victory for Women in Sudan, Female Genital Mutilation Is Outlawed. New York Times. April 30, 2020 

[2] World Health Organization. Female genital mutilation. February 3, 2020 

[3] Yuti Joshi. Sudan outlawed female genital mutilation. But experts warn it will take more to end the practice. CBS News. May 2, 2020 

[4] Zeinab Mohammed Salih. Sudan to outlaw female genital mutilation. The Guardian. May 1, 2020