Sudan outlaws Female Genital Mutilation: what does it mean for women’s rights in the country?

by Tiago Medeiros Delgado, Universal Rights Group Beyond the Council BORRAR, Beyond the Council BORRAR, Blog BORRAR, Blog BORRAR, Human rights implementation and impact, Human rights institutions and mechanisms, Implementation BORRAR, In focus: domestic implementation of universal norms BORRAR, Religion, Religion-based reservations BORRAR, SDGs borrar, Thematic human rights issues

In a significant move for women’s rights in Sudan and the wider region, the country’s transitional government has outlawed the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). The amendment to the criminal code that makes ‘whoever removed, mutilated the female genitalia by cutting, mutilating or modifying any natural part of it leading to the full or partial loss of its functions’ punishable by a prison sentence of up to three years and a fine is a significant step in the country, which has one of the highest FGM prevalence rates in the world – 87% according to UN Women’s Global Database on Violence Against Women, a number that can be even higher in rural areas.

FGM is a harmful practice that involves the partial or total removal of external female genitalia for non-medical reasons, as part of cultural or religious beliefs. It is internationally recognised as a violation of human rights of girls and women and as an extreme form of gender discrimination. Under Sustainable Development Goal 5, on Gender Equality, target 5.3 expresses the international community’s commitment to eliminating FGM by 2030.

The criminalisation of FGM in Sudan comes at particularly challenging times for women’s rights internationally, including with regards to women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). New UNFPA research estimates that 2 million more women and girls will be victim of FGM over the next decade due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, in recent years international policy discussions around gender equality, women’s rights and especially SRHR, have been marked by a growing (perceived) backlash against women’s rights. So what explains the approval of this law and does it symbolise a turning tide for women’s rights at large in Sudan?

Transitional government in Sudan

One year ago, a URG By Invitation blog asked the question of whether the transitional government in Sudan represented an opportunity for a new chapter in the country’s relationship with the UN human rights system. Since then, the country has made relevant progresses towards democratic and rights-promoting reforms, despite the scepticism fuelled by the fragile security situation in Darfur, the delicate economic condition and delays in the implementation of important institutional reforms.

In July 2019, the Transitional Military Council, which was installed after former President Omar Al-Bashir was overthrown and arrested, reached an agreement with the opposition coalition on a power-sharing arrangement. The agreement resulted in the formation of a joint civil-military authority, the Sovereign Council, to rule the country during a 39-month transition period, followed by elections. In November, in a big step for women’s rights, the transitional government repealed a public order law of the former regime that controlled the movement of women and how they dressed in public. The law was considered to be humiliating and degrading and effectively excluded women from active participation in public life. In February, at a ceremony marking the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, the government’s minister for religious affairs, Nasr al-Din Mufreh, expressed his support for the goal of eliminating FGM by 2030.

But political momentum following the transition of power is certainly not the sole reason for the recent criminalisation of FGM in Sudan. It also follows a global trend towards repudiating the practice, as it is increasingly recognised internationally as a violation of women and girls’ rights to health, physical integrity, right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and even the right to life. More importantly, it reflects persistent and long-term activism by women in the country, with regards to both FGM and broader women’s rights. In fact, women were at the forefront of the mass demonstrations that toppled former President Al-Bashir in April 2019, demanding respect for their fundamental freedoms and increased participation in the country’s public and political life, as well as denouncing discriminatory laws and policies that violated their rights.

The way forward

Criminalisation of FGM in Sudan is undeniably a big step forward. Not only because Sudan has one of the highest prevalence rates of FGM in the world, but also because most Sudanese women are predominantly subjected to the most extreme form of the practice, often referred to as infibulation, in which the inner and outer labia, and usually the clitoris, are removed. In addition to its great significance for the enjoyment of human rights at the national level, the introduction of this new law in a country where the practice is so widespread can potentially be an important signal for other countries where the practice has not yet been outlawed, and hopefully steer similar legal reforms in the region.

Nonetheless, despite the great legal and political significance of the criminalisation of FGM in Sudan, it is not a panacea. The limited success in six of Sudan’s eighteen States that already had legal provisions that restricted or banned FGM shows that implementation remains a major issue. Figures in neighbouring Egypt, which banned FGM in 2008 and amended the law in 2016 to criminalise doctors and parents who facilitate the practice, also help to understand the dimension of the implementation challenge, as 87% of girls and women aged 15 to 49 years old have undergone FGM in the country, according to UN Women – approximately the same rate as that of Sudan.

As the practice of FGM is entrenched in cultural and religious practices in Sudan, there is still a long way to go before its elimination. Particularly in rural areas, distant from the central government, enforcing laws that seek to impact deeply rooted custom requires formidable efforts. As noted in Joint General Recommendation n. 31 of CEDAW/General Comment n. 18 of CRC, the causes of harmful practices are multidimensional and include stereotyped sex- and gender-based roles, attempts to exert control over the bodies and sexuality of women and girls, social inequalities and the prevalence of male-dominated power structures. In this sense, efforts to address to change them must address these underlying systemic and structural causes of harmful practices.

Despite the difficulties, changing attitudes towards FGM is not an impossible task. In Kenya, for example, initiatives have sought to introduce alternative ceremonies that exclude the cutting, and have found acceptance even in strongly patriarchal communities. In Sudan, UNICEF and the National Council of Child Welfare (NCCW) have launched the Saleema Initiative, which seeks to change the way that people talk about female genital cutting by promoting, at the community level, wide usage of new positive terminology to describe the natural bodies of girls and women. There are also relevant roles to be played by healthcare providers – such as doctors, nurses and midwives – and religious leaders in raising awareness and changing attitudes towards FGM, particularly because of their influential role and close contact with practicing communities.

Finally, Sudan’s transitional government is also yet to take more decisive steps in the international arena with regards to women’s rights. The country is not yet a party to CEDAW and therefore is not engaged with the relevant treaty body, which could provide valuable recommendations for domestic human rights reform, particularly in relation to women’s rights. As demonstrated by the outcome of URG’s workshop on ‘lifting religion-based reservations to the core international human rights conventions as a means of strengthening women’s rights at national level, and the role of women’s rights advocacy groups in that regard’, treaty ratification is a vital first step for creating positive change for human rights in a country, especially when it is accompanied by vibrant civil society participation.

Feature picture: 11 March 2013. El Fasher: Local Singer Islam Ahmed performs a song during the celebration organized by UNAMID to commemorate the International Women’s Day in El Fasher, North Darfur. With the slogan “Together to promote the dignity of Women and Girls”, the event was organized in coordination with UNHCR, UNFPA, UNDP, UNICEF, UNWomen and the Government of Sudan. Photo by Albert González Farran, UNAMID. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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