Sudan’s decision to outlaw the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) is a landmark victory for women’s rights in a country that is still in a transition from dictatorship to democracy. The development follows the transitional government’s decision to scrap the repressive social codes and humiliating penalties that targeted women during the nearly 30-year dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir, which fell last year amid protests. Hundreds of Sudanese professionals who spearheaded the protests, had clamoured for a broad-based and inclusive constitutional order. The new measure, which entails punishment with a fine and a prison sentence, must still be approved by the Supreme Council, made up of civilians and military officials, that oversees the democratic transition. The government’s decision builds on the curbs already in place in a number of provinces, although enforcement has been a concern. The UN estimates that some 87% of Sudanese women have had their external genitalia removed on non-medical grounds during childhood, leaving them with life-long emotional and physical injuries. While the latest measure has been widely welcomed, campaigners remain cautious about a shift in attitude against this custom, regarded as crucial prior to matrimony.
According to the UN, over 200 million women in several African countries, including Sudan, Egypt, Nigeria, Djibouti and Senegal, and some in Asia, have been subject to this brutal social custom. While there is ongoing research to rectify the damage, WHO is somewhat sceptical about the effectiveness of recent reconstruction surgeries. The prevailing scenario thus underscores the need for stronger campaigns and bold actions to stop this social scourge. Even in countries where FGM is outlawed, enforcement remains an issue. In Egypt’s first FGM trial in 2014, six years after Cairo clamped a ban, the doctor who had carried out the procedure, as well as the father of the deceased girl, were acquitted, despite incriminating forensic evidence. In Somalia, the country with the highest prevalence rate but no legal ban, the death of a girl in 2018 after a similar procedure led to the first prosecution in such incidents. In Uganda, reports last year of some 300 cases of mutilation within a month shed light on the government’s uphill task to back existing legislation with vigorous awareness campaigns. In Kenya, where the practice was criminalised in 2011, the government strategy last year requiring girls to be tested for circumcision raised concerns of victimisation and privacy violation. These practices suggest that legislation alone may not stop this practice that has deep cultural roots. The government has to eradicate it. Sustaining the country’s progressive currents and democratic transition would be crucial to consolidate the gender reforms it has introduced in recent months.