Health Experts Welcome Sudan Move To Criminalize Female Genital Mutilation; But Legislation Is Not Enough To End Practice
12-year old female genital mutilation survivor in her husband’s village -Tarime District, Tanzania

Women’s and children’s health advocates have lauded a landmark move by Sudan to finally criminalize the practice of female genital mutilation and cutting (FGM/C) – punishing perpetrators for up to 3 years in prison to ward them off the crime.

Last Thursday, Sudan’s National Council for Child Welfare endorsed a long-awaited amendment to Criminal Law Article 141 in Sudan’s Criminal Act. The new law aims to end FGM in healthcare settings, as over three quarters of FGM procedures in Sudan are undertaken by nurses, midwives and other healthcare workers.

Sudan’s move to criminalize medicalized forms of FGM is an important step forward not only because it has one of the highest prevalence rates in the world, but also because most FGM in Sudan takes places in healthcare settings, said Jasmine Abdulcadir, head of the FGM/C Outpatient clinic and Obstetrics and Gynecology Emergency Unit at the University of Geneva, in an interview with Health Policy Watch.

Some 86.6% of girls in Sudan are subjected to FGM, according to United Nations data. FGM is an umbrella term for any practice that involves partial or total removal of the external part of a female’s genital organs for non-medical reasons. A woman can bleed to death or die from infections as a result from FGM, and the practice can also cause childbirth complications, sexual health problems and chronic pain, health experts state.

UNICEF welcomed the move on Wednesday as well. “This practice is not only a violation of every girl child’s rights, it is harmful and has serious consequences for a girl’s physical and mental health,” said Abdullah Fadil, UNICEF Representative in Sudan, in a UNICEF press release. “This is why governments and communities alike must take immediate action to put an end to this practice.”

About a half of FGM occurs before the age of 5, and the majority of girls are mutilated before they reach 15 years of age, according to a 2016 UNICEF report

More Action Is Needed To Ensure End Of Practice, says FGM Expert

More than three-quarters of girls in Sudan are cut by health personnel

Legal reform and awareness-raising is not enough to put such culturally ingrained practices to a halt, Abdulcadir warned. “Legislation and awareness-raising is only one of many steps towards abandoning a practice that can survive despite its illegality, as we have seen in other countries in the past.“ 

Abandoning the practice fully must start with community engagement, added Fadil.

“We need to work very hard with the communities to help enforce this law. The intention is not to criminalize parents, and we need to exert more effort to raise awareness among the different groups, including midwives, health providers, parents, youth about the amendment and promote acceptance of it,” he said.

The exact amended text of the the approved law reads, ‘There shall be deemed to commit the offence of female genital mutilation whoever, removed, mutilated the female genitalia by cutting, mutilating or modifying any natural part of it leading to the full or partial lost of its functions, whether it is inside a hospital, health center, dispensary or clinic or other places.”

Of the 29 countries in Africa where female genital mutilation (FGM) is traditionally practiced, Sudan has joined the 26 who now have laws prohibiting some form of FGM, reports Equality Now, a global woman’s rights advocacy group. In most countries where it is still practiced, the majority of women think it should end, according to a UNICEF survey from 2013

While there may be laws banning FGM, they don’t always work well. In some countries like Mauritania or Liberia, FGM is officially prohibited for under-age women, but the law has been scarcely enforced, and there are few arrests or judicial proceedings to address FGM, reports Equality Now.

There is a spectrum of culturally engrained beliefs that motivate FGM, according to 28 Too Many, a UK-based NGO that advocates against FGM. A commonly-held belief is that FGM is a sign of fertility and  social status, improving a woman’s capacity to marry and often being a prerequisite for marriage. Other beliefs also include: fear of female promiscuity; sexual hyperactivity; preservation of virginity; purification; aesthetic purposes; improved sexual pleasure of men.

Experts have documented roughly 5 different types of FGM, one of which involves partial or total removal of the female body’s sexual pleasure hotspot – the clitoris.

Over three quarters of the world’s FGM takes place in Sudan, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, according to a 2016 study from Norway’s CHR Michelsen Institute. 

About 200 million women are survivors of FGM, and about 3 million girls are at risk of FGM every year.

FGM/C is concentrated in a swath of countries from the Atlantic Coast to the Horn of Africa.

Image Credits: UNICEF, UNICEF.