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WILL CRIMINALISATION OF FEMALE GENITAL MUTILATION IN SUDAN BE ENOUGH FOR ERADICATING THE PRACTICE?

Introduction

The transition government of Sudan took a major step towards the development of women’s rights by criminalising the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). This draconian practice is deeply rooted in Sudan and various initiatives have been taken in the past to eradicate this dangerous practice. However, such recommendations were continuously neglected by the parliament. According to the amendment, any person who is found guilty of committing any such act (FGM) shall be punished with up to “three years of imprisonment” and a fine. The article intends to throw light upon the abhorrent practice of FGM and the efforts that lead to its criminalisation in Sudan. It also mentions the challenges that Sudan might face in implementing the new legislation.

The Practice of FGM in Sudan

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a dehumanising practice that involves partial or total removal of a female’s external reproductive organs or genitalia. It is an indication of inequality and discrimination against girls and women. The practice of FGM not only violates the rights of girls and women but also severely hampers an individual’s physical and mental health. According to a report, about 87% of Sudanese women have endured some form of genital mutilation. Many girls between the age of 0-14 were reported as uncut in this report but they were still at high risk of undergoing FGM. It was also reported that the daughters whose mothers were not educated were more likely to undergo this abhorrent practice. The practice of FGM is widely carried out in Sudan because of a popular cultural belief that it is necessary for a female’s modesty. Female genital mutilation is conventionally seen as a method of curbing female sexual desires to strengthen conservative conduct.

Health Risks And Complications Associated With FGM

Female genital mutilation is a dangerous practice that harms women and girls in various ways by creating immediate as well as long term health risks. Contrary to people’s beliefs, female genital mutilation does not have any health benefits. Beja group, the largest ethnic group in the Red Sea, considers FGM as a measure that keeps away evil spirits and diseases. It can cause various complications like unbearable pain, excessive bleeding, urine retention, septicemia (a life-threatening infection), the appearance of cysts and genital ulcers, infertility, and labour dystocia (obstructed labour) and in some cases, it can even cause death. It impacts the mental health of the person as well. It can cause depression, anxiety, memory dysfunction, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

According to a survey, “about 80%of women who had undergone genital mutilation met the criteria for affective or anxiety disorders”; on the other hand, only one of the uncircumcised women met the criteria of a disorder. The data clearly shows how severely FGM affects the physical, mental, and sexual well-being of a woman. The practice of FGM violates international treaties like UDHR (Article 1 and 5), ICCPR (Article 9(1)), CRC (Article 9), CEDAW (Article 1), and many more which provide for the right to life, liberty, non-discrimination and freedom from violence. It fits within the definition of discrimination against women given by the various human rights organisations and it causes both mental and physical harm, which is a violation of the right to life as well.

Journey Of Criminalising Female Genital Mutilation

Sudan was the first African nation to introduce legislation against genital mutilation/ cutting in 1946, under British colonial rule. The legislation criminalised infibulations (type III FGM). However, the other three forms of FGM were permitted. After the introduction of Sharia law in 1983, the above-mentioned legislation was removed completely.

According to a report by a campaign group, in 2008, six states of Sudan enacted laws to restrict or proscribe genital mutilation. However, due to the ineffective implementation of such laws, it did not result in any prosecutions. This was because people often refused to provide information about the midwife or the doctor who performed the procedure. UNICEF Sudan and the “National Council of Child Welfare (NCCW)” launched the “Saleema Initiative” in 2008. The main objective of the initiative was to protect girls from genital mutilation and eliminate the practice of FGM. It tried to change the views of people regarding genital cutting by using new terms like “Saleema” to illustrate the bodies of women and girls. The word Saleema means “whole”, “healthy” and “untouched”. The rationale behind the use of this word was to strengthen the idea that being uncircumcised is natural. As a result, the number of women who were in favour of mutilation decreased, and the intention to circumcise daughters reduced. It shows that the campaign had a positive impact on people. Even though there was no reduction in the cases of genital mutilation, the attitude of many people changed.

The constitution of Sudan contains certain provisions that protect the rights of women and girls. Article 32 of the Sudanese constitution contains measures to safeguard women and children from dangerous activities. Article 15(2) protects women from injustice and promotes gender equality. Article 28 mentions the right to life and human dignity. The constitution, under Article 33, also says that no one should be subjected to torture or inhuman treatment. FGM, therefore, violates all the rights granted by the constitution.“Article13 of the draft of National Child Act, 2009” that provided for criminalisation of female genital mutilation/cutting, was removed because religious leaders believed that it would be against the Sharia laws.

During the regime of Omar al-Bashir, former president of Sudan, Sudanese conservative leaders religiously allowed the practice of FMG. They stalled the passage of any legislation against the practice of FGM. The transition government, which replaced Omar al-Bashir, was able to overcome this difficulty and criminalised the practice of female genital mutilation in April 2020. According to the new legislation, the offence is punishable with up to three years of imprisonment and a fine. The government also repealed certain other laws that imposed restrictions on women. For instance, the Public Order law that controlled what women could wear in public was also repealed by the transition government.

The recent amendment is a big step towards the development of women’s rights. Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that no one should be subjected to inhuman treatment. Article 25 of UDHR includes health as a human right and says that every person has the right to a standard of living sufficient for the health and wellbeing of an individual. The practice of FGM is an inhuman activity that hampers the mental and physical health of a woman and is therefore a gross violation of human rights. It indicates significant progress made by the Sudanese government, but mere legislation is not enough to eradicate this practice. For instance, Egypt has criminalized genital mutilation in 2008 yet prosecutions are few and far between. In Egypt, the first FGM trial took place in 2014, in this case, the father of the deceased as well as the doctor who carried out the procedure, were initially acquitted. It took a tenacious campaign to ensure a successful prosecution. It has been reported that the lack of prosecution is because officials who consider FGM as a private family problem. According to UNFPA Egypt, about 92% of women and girls in Egypt have been subjected to genital mutilation. However, since the procedure is still performed in secrecy law is not enough to protect girls and women.

Challenges Lying Ahead

Cultural and religious beliefs along with Sudan’s low rate of literacy will make implementation of the new anti-FGM law challenging. The low rate of literacy in Sudan would make the implementation of this law more difficult as most of the people are still not aware of the amendment in the criminal law of Sudan. The law might even face strong opposition from tribal leaders. For instance, the leaders of the Beja group strongly opposed the anti-FGM law of 2007. The group believes that genital mutilation preserves honor and keeps away diseases. The government needs to make certain that the law is strictly enforced by prosecuting perpetrators since it will act as a deterrent and will discourage the likeminded people from committing the same crime.

The COVID-19 pandemic has severely hampered the communication and mobility of people. It has put the government at a disadvantage because the pandemic has made it difficult for the government to organise and mobilise awareness campaigns. To create awareness, the government of Sudan needs to organise awareness campaigns to educate people about this social evil. It is important to change the socio-cultural outlook of people as it can lead to the elimination of the harmful and discriminatory practice of female genital mutilation. It is important to educate people, the deep-rooted beliefs and views can only be transformed when people are made aware of the harm caused by genital mutilation. It is essential for the smooth implementation of the law that people are aware of their rights.

Conclusion

More than 200 million girls and women have endured genital mutilation. It is a social evil that requires strict legislations to eliminate the practice of FGM. The practice of genital mutilation is highly prevalent in Sudan because of a popular belief that it is essential for marriage. The transitional government of Sudan has taken a big step by criminalising the practice of FGM. Legislation against female genital mutilation will act as a deterrent; however, Sudan may face many challenges in implementing the new law as it would be difficult to change the rigid and orthodox views of people who still believe in the traditional and cultural importance of FGM and fail to acknowledge that they are putting their daughters through immense pain and suffering. Some countries still do not have any legislation or law against the practice of FGM like in Sierra Leone, on the other hand, some struggle with the problem of execution of such laws like in Egypt. It is necessary to create awareness among women and girls about their rights. Awareness is essential for the proper implementation of any law. Female genital mutilation is an abhorrent violation of human rights and it is necessary to create awareness among the people to get rid of this practice completely.


Title image source: Nottingham Trent University.

Image used for creative visualization only.


This article has been written by Shambhavi Kant, a third year student of law at Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law, Punjab.


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