Sudan’s Journey of Criminalising Female Genital Mutilation
In a historic development concerning women’s rights, the Sudanese transitional government on 22nd April, criminalised the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) and made it punishable for up to three years in prison. FGM is a dangerous and discriminatory practice which results in the partial or total removal of external female genitalia without any medical reasons. It violates several international human rights law provisions related to women and children. In Sudan, nearly nine out of ten women aged 15-49 have been cut. This article traces the developments which led to the criminalisation of FGM in the country, in keeping with international human rights law. Additionally, it also highlights the challenges that Sudan may face in the implementation of this law and suggests measures to deal with them.
The Saleema initiative was launched in 2008 by the National Council of Child Welfare (NCCW) and UNICEF Sudan to end the practice of FGM in the country. The word ‘Saleema’ itself means ‘whole’, ‘intact’, ‘in a God-given condition’. This initiative focused on the collective abandonment of FGM at the community level. It educated women and girls about the health hazards associated with FGM, and encouraged them to say no against this cruelty. This resulted in the formulation of laws to restrict or ban FGM by states like South Kordofan, Gadaref, South Darfur and Red Sea from 2008 onwards. However, these laws were not applied in practice as no prosecutions were carried out, despite the practice being rampant in these states.
The Sudanese Constitution contains several provisions under Articles 15(2), 28 and 33 to protect the rights of women and children. Some of these rights like gender equality and right to life and dignity, are clearly violated by FGM. Article 32 explicitly contains measures to combat harmful practices against women and children. In 1946, Sudan became the first African nation to introduce legislation against Type III FGM, but with the introduction of the Sharia law in 1983, this article was removed from the Criminal Act. In 2009, Article 13 of the draft National Child Act provided for the criminalisation of FGM, but it was also removed before the law could be enacted due to opposition by conservative religious leaders who believed that this would go against Sharia. It was finally in September 2016 that Article 141 urging for the criminalisation of FGM, was proposed in an amendment to the Criminal Act. Four years following this, Article 141 was endorsed by both the Sovereign and Ministerial Councils on 22nd April, 2020 which has eventually paved the way for outlawing this abhorrent practice.
International and regional human rights treaties like the UDHR, ICCPR, ICESR, CEDAW, CRC, the Banjul Charter and the African Charter provide for the right to life, non-discrimination, protection against degrading treatment and right to privacy. The practice of FGM violates all these provisions. Sudan has signed or ratified many of these treaties. Hence, by declaring the practice of FGM to be illegal, it has upheld its commitments under these treaties.
There is no doubt that the current news indicates significant progress made by Sudanese law to preserve the rights and dignity of women, but mere legislation cannot completely eradicate this social evil. Women in Sudan fear that now, this practice could be driven underground. Cultural and religious beliefs strongly dictate the social narrative, leading people to regard FGM as being necessary to marry off daughters in traditional communities. This, combined with Sudan’s low rate of literacy, can make it challenging for the new anti-FGM law to be implemented successfully. In such a scenario, it will be the government’s responsibility to ensure that this law is strictly enforced by prosecuting offenders, and carrying out awareness campaigns to educate the masses about this unhealthy practice.
In any case, nations around the world could learn from Sudan in this regard. Around 200 million girls have been subjected to FGM, which is mainly prevalent in countries in Africa, Middle East and Asia. Some nations still do not have laws against FGM and the nations that do, struggle with problems of implementation. Unfortunately, FGM majorly remains a socio-cultural practice. While laws might reduce its occurrence, changes in socio-cultural outlook can lead to elimination. It is this aspect that states and international organisations need to deliberate upon in order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal of eliminating FGM around the globe by 2030.