Female genital mutilation (FGM), also known as female circumcision or female genital cutting, is performed in various forms across Africa. Globally, an estimated 200 million girls and women have undergone FGM, and three million girls are at risk. In the next year, 20 million more are at risk of being mutilated. While most of the 30 countries where FGM is practiced have legislated against it, the practice continues in secret. Many international organizations are educating and empowering girls and their communities to end FGM.
Female Genital Mutilation: Facts
FGM not only reflects deep-rooted inequality between men and women but also violates the human rights of girls and women. In this modern age, the practice, unfortunately, remains in many countries. In Africa alone, it is believed that approximately 92 million girls aged 10 years and over have undergone FGM procedures. Over three million girls in the continent are thought to undergo FGM each year. In eight countries, the prevalence is 80%.
The practice occurs for a combination of reasons based on cultural, social, and religious practices. In societies with low literacy rates, FGM is a “proper” thing to do. Those who have not undergone FGM are not allowed to handle food and water because they are “unclean.” They are even seen as posing a health risk to others. Some communities also believe that the practice will make a woman more fertile. To some, FGM represents decent sexual behavior. The damage to the genitalia means that the chance of a woman having illicit sexual relations is reduced. A woman is also perceived to be cleaner and more beautiful if her genitals are cut.
A 2018 study found that married women are more likely to have undergone FGM compared with their unmarried counterparts. The practice is typically seen as a rite of passage into womanhood and a precursor to marriage. Some communities believe that it helps preserve virginity, controls girls’ and women's sexuality, and is a prerequisite for marriage.
Since FGM is often carried out under primitive and unsanitary conditions without anesthetic, it can cause severe pain, bleeding, and swelling that may prevent passing urine or feces. According to Medical News Today, one of the world’s leading open-access medical and life science hubs, complications that can occur during or after FGM procedures include bacterial infection, open sores in the genital area, damage to nearby genital tissue, and more. It may also lead to chronic pelvic infections, urinary tract infections, and birth complications for mothers and children.
“Female genital mutilation also violates a person’s rights to health, security and physical integrity, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to life when the procedure results in death,” the World Health Organization said.
FGM also has economic impacts. A study of the economic impacts of treating health complications of the practice revealed that the current costs for 27 countries where data was available totaled $1.4 billion in 2018. The researchers are expecting that figure to increase to $2.3 billion in 30 years if FGM prevalence remains the same — corresponding to a 68% increase in the costs of inaction. If countries abandon the practice, these costs would decrease by 60% over the next three decades.
Sudan Outlawed FGM
Previous studies revealed that the large majority of Sudanese women have been subjected to the most severe forms of genital cutting. The UN said that 9 out of 10 women between the ages of 15 to 49 have undergone this practice. Thus, Sudan criminalizing the act is a historic move for the country.
The fight to ban FGM in Sudan has a long history. While the practice was already illegal in some Sudanese states, these bans were widely ignored. According to the BBC, an operational business division of the British Broadcasting Corporation responsible for the gathering and broadcasting of news and current affairs, there have been previous attempts to ban FGM across the whole country but parliament under long-time leader Omar al-Bashir rejected the recommendations.
Activists and women in Sudan played a huge role not only in ousting al-Bashir but also in passing the new law against FGM. Faiza Jama Mohamed, Africa Officer Director of Equality Now, said that they led protests to put an end to the pervasive gender discrimination enforced by the regime. “Protesters took huge personal risks by going onto the streets to call for greater women's rights and it is heartening to see their struggle now bearing fruits,” she said.
Any offenders of this new law will serve a punishable sentence of up to three years in prison. In a statement, the Sudanese Foreign Ministry welcomed the Sudanese government's decision. “The statement 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,” it said.
Mohamed added that the new law should be accompanied by positive community engagement, awareness-raising on the dangers of this harmful practice, and support for women and girls who have been cut or are at risk. Authorities should also collect and share reliable data and provide adequate funding to eliminate this harmful practice. “We expect that the law will be passed by the sovereign council and if that happens, it will be an expression of the political will in this country,” Amira Azhary, from the National Council for Child Welfare and a campaigner for the Saleema initiative, said.
However, activists expect that it will take a long time for FGM to be eradicated entirely because the practice is entrenched in Sudanese culture. While many called it a momentous day for Sudanese women, some are treating it with caution for fear that the practice could be driven underground. According to The Guardian, an British daily newspaper, Fatma Naib, communication officer of UNICEF, said that the law is a good start but there’s still so much work to be done. “The crucial step will be to ensure there are consequences for those who perform the cut on their girls,” Naib said.