Female Genital Mutilation -The Road To Eradication

Female Genital Mutilation -The Road To Eradication

2020 has been dominated by Covid-19 related doom and gloom, however there are other notable positive developments worth acknowledging including the criminalisation of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Sudan in April 2020.

FGM is an internationally recognised human rights violation and is defined by UNICEF as  “all procedures involving partial or total removal of the female external genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons”. This harmful practice can result in a myriad of complications including, kidney infections, cysts, urinary tract infections, reproductive difficulties and death.

According to UNICEF, “FGM has been performed on at least 200 million girls and women in 31 countries across three continents, with more than half of those cut living in Egypt, Ethiopia and Indonesia. Each year, over 4 million girls are at risk of undergoing FGM. Most girls are cut before the age of 15.”

According to the UN Population Fund, 88% of women and girls aged between 15 and 49 in Sudan have undergone some form of FGM. The North Kordofan state of Sudan exhibits the highest rate  at 97.7%. This harmful practice was already illegal in 6 of 18 Sudanese states as of 2008 but is now illegal nationwide.Currently, anyone who performs FGM either inside a medical establishment or elsewhere could be imprisoned for three years and could receive a fine. Unfortunately, due to the lockdown designed to curb the spread of Covid-19, many people may not be aware of the new law.

Initially FGM was thought to be practiced in remote areas by people with no recognised medical qualifications, but over time it has become apparent that the “medicalisation” of FGM is on the rise. In 2014,  77.9% of women in urban areas and 56.7% of women in rural areas between the ages of 15 and 49 had been cut by “trained midwives”. This is despite the fact that since 2002, Medical Council Resolution Number 366 of 2002 has prohibited doctors, nurses and midwives from performing FGM. Sanctions were purely administrative and the Medical Council could have exercised its discretion with regard to punishment, but consequences could have included the loss of one’s practicing licence and dismissal from the profession.

Whilst the nationwide criminalisation is an important milestone, activists have warned that changing the law is one thing but implementation and adherence is another. As pointed out in the New York times, Egypt outlawed FGM in 2008 and in 2016 the law was amended to hold doctors and parents who facilitated the practice responsible including facing up to seven years in prison for conducting the operation and up to 15 years in prison if it results in death or causes disability. Those requesting the operation can be jailed for up to 3 years. However, prosecutions are  uncommon and the practice continues. 

This year 12 year old  Nada Hassan Abdel-Maqsoud died in a clinic whilst undergoing FGM (at the request of her parents), performed by a doctor without an anaesthetic. The doctor and her parents were referred for prosecution.

Many anti-FGM campaigners, including UNICEF say that some communities endorse it as a method of “controlling girls’ sexuality or safeguarding their chastity.” Other communities understand it as a ”prerequisite for marriage or inheritance” and some as a rite of passage and a form of initiation necessary for all girls as they become women. Religious arguments have also been used to “legitimise” and endorse the practice yet in the eyes of many, FGM is not supported by either Christianity or Islam. FGM has also been understood as a symptom of  gender inequality. Whilst all of these perspectives are valid and will differ from one community to the next, it is evident that to reduce the prevalence of the practice, and hopefully one day completely eradicate it, a better appreciation of its origins and significance is required.

Dr Sada Mire, archaeologist and FGM survivor writes that the roots and justification of this practice are far deeper than is commonly understood. In her March 2020 opinion piece in the Guardian Newspaper, she writes that FGM “began as a sacrifice to the divine” and that, “the initial intention was not about relations between humans but rather between humans and the gods: an act of self-preservation related to sacred blood, existence itself, and reproduction…. FGM was part of a collection of sacrificial rituals.”

She asserts that “the issues of sexual control, virginity and virtue are secondary, more recent additions… FGM was most likely originally meant as a collective human sacrifice to the gods to avoid a curse from the ancestors.”

She goes on to say that many who would like to see the practice abolished do not want to be the ones who bring “shame” to their families. Her own mother, a midwife who later fought FGM in the 1960s, succumbed to pressure from female elders as she feared that harm would befall her daughter if she deviated from the tradition.

Mire writes  “I now understand that my ancestors were not ‘savage’ people who just mutilated their girls to maintain patriarchal dominance, but that actually there was a much more collective existential ideology behind it (albeit outdated and forgotten). And the fear of not being blessed helps continue the practice.”

She believes that one of the ways to eradicate FGM, in addition to educating girls and their communities is to create new rituals that “maintain the blessing element” without requiring FGM.  Kenyan activist, Nice Leng’ete, who fights against FGM in Kenya is of a similar mindset as she goes into Kenyan Maasai communities and collaborates with elders and girls to create a new rite of passage that does not involve FGM. Similar trends have been observed in communities in Tanzania and Burkina Faso.

Time will tell if the law is effective in Sudan but hopefully, despite the political challenges and Covid-19 related complications facing Sudan, this law, and the introduction of alternative safe and healthy rituals will pave the way for the eradication of this harmful practice.

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Africa, General, International Human Rights Law
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