Sudanese Foreign Minister Asmaa Mohamed Abdallah has announced that the country’s transitional government has criminalised female genital mutilation (FGM) following decades of struggle against this still highly prevalent crime against women in Sudan.
The announcement was hailed as “historic” by the UN Children’s Fund UNICEF.
The fact that it was Sudan’s foreign minister, together with the Information Ministry that made the announcement, has led many observers to believe that the move is designed to indicate the new path the new government has adopted following the April Revolution in Sudan that overthrew the three-decade rule of former president Omar Al-Bashir.
Article 141 of the Sudanese Criminal Code now punishes with a three-year prison term “anyone who removes or mutilates a woman’s genitalia, resulting in its partial or total dysfunction, be the act practised in a hospital, clinic, or otherwise.”
Those found guilty of performing FGM will also be fined and “the place where the crime took place shall be closed.”
This is not the first time that FGM has been criminalised in Sudan since a similar law was passed by the British colonial administration in 1946.
“That law was a colonial ploy because it didn’t criminalise the FGM that Sudan describes as sunna [an act taken after the Prophet Mohamed],” said Nahid Gabrallah, director of the Seema Centre for Training and the Protection of Women and Children’s Rights.
Gabrallah is a human-rights activist who has long been fighting against violence against women and FGM in Sudan. “The colonial law stipulated that the genital mutilation had to lead to death or disability before it could be penalised. Therefore, it could only be applied to one per cent of cases,” she said.
“The 1946 law wasn’t put into effect because the colonialists didn’t want to clash with the country’s conservative leaders at a time when the national movement was intensifying the call for the independence of Sudan,” said Hassan Saleh, a Sudanese lawyer.
To control Sudan, the British used tribal leaders under the civil administration system to enforce the law, including the law criminalising FGM. These tribal leaders could not change the prevalent culture supporting FGM, making the application of the colonial law against FGM impractical.
For three decades following Sudan’s independence in 1956, the violent practice was performed until women’s rights activists raised their voices demanding the criminalisation of FGM.
“It became more difficult to fight the practice with the rise of the Islamists in the 1980s,” said Gabrallah.
Former Sudanese president Gaafar Numeiri conducted a “national reconciliation” in 1977 between his regime and a number of opposition parties, including the Sudanese Muslim Brotherhood led by the late Hassan Al-Turabi, which had benefitted from financing from the Islamic Faisal Bank and other Islamic banks.
Numeiri announced the application of Islamic Sharia Law in Sudan in September 1983. He was toppled in April 1985.
A coup later took place in June 1989 masterminded by Al-Turabi and under the leadership of Al-Bashir. The new regime implemented an extremist ideology against women.
According to Gabrallah, civil-society associations then suggested enforcing Article 13 of a children’s law passed in 2009 that criminalised FGM. But Al-Bashir responded by abolishing the article under the pressure of extremist clerics.
A year earlier, the National Council for Child Welfare in Khartoum had suggested a strategy to eliminate FGM. Its 2008-2018 plan focused on social awareness and had positive results among the country’s middle classes. At the same time, the country’s Medical Council banned FGM in hospitals and state clinics.
Nonetheless, Sudan’s Islamic Jurisprudence Authority affiliated to the Sudan Scholars Association issued religious edicts supporting FGM.
Nine out of 10 Sudanese married women between 15 and 49 years of age have undergone FGM procedures, according to UNICEF. However, according to Sudan’s 2010 healthcare census, 34.5 per cent of girls aged between five and nine have experienced FGM, down from 41 per cent in 2006.
Based on the Seema Centre’s initiative, Sudan is now likely to see fewer such invasive operations among young girls in cities and among the middle classes. “But unfortunately the practice is still exercised among other classes,” Gabrallah said.
It may be that the new Article 141 of the Criminal Code will meet the same fate as previous laws on FGM. It is unlikely to be followed in regions controlled by civil administrations, such as the major part of west Sudan, and regions suffering from civil conflict such as Darfur, Blue Nile and the Nuba Mountains to the south.
It is also futile to adopt the path of raising public awareness against FGM without effective policies to eliminate poverty.
According to the UN, the Egyptian experience has been the most successful in this regard in Africa. FGM dropped in Egypt from 99 per cent in 1995 to 61 per cent in 2014 among girls aged 15 to 17, the age group that most commonly undergoes FGM operations. It is expected the percentage will further drop in Egypt’s 2021 census.
In 2008, Egypt issued a law defining FGM as a misdemeanour. The punishment was increased in 2016 to seven years in prison and the practice was deemed a crime. If the procedure results in death or disability, the crime is punishable by 15 years in jail.
Egypt has been launching anti-FGM campaigns for years, and the government has banned its practice in state hospitals since the 1990s.
“The law is a powerful tool to challenge the culture. I believe fewer girls will suffer from FGM in Sudan from now on,” Saleh said. “It is true there will be difficulties in applying the law in regions far from the capital, but it is worth trying,” he added.
“Society raises the awareness of individuals in time, making it possible to fight crimes such as FGM,” he concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 May, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly