When Sudanese activist Hala al-Karib first heard of her country’s ban on female genital mutilation (FGM) – where the decades old practice has persisted despite endless protests by campaigners – she was both hopeful and perplexed.
Hopeful because the law would finally spell freedom from the barbaric ritual that nearly nine in ten Sudanese women are subjected to, and confused because the details made it unclear when and how the law would be implemented.
“Within the Sudanese society, we have not been consulted about this new law,” al Karib tells me over the phone. “We have no idea what it is. It feels like political propaganda to appease the West.”
The sentiment rings true for many Sudanese women, including activists and women’s rights groups who have tirelessly worked to end the practice within the region. No such law is in place in reality, they say.
Yet that’s the impression sold internationally, as praise has flooded in since the supposed ban was announced in April by Sudan’s current transitional government under Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok. Under the new amendment to Sudan’s criminal code, anyone performing FGM could face a three-year prison term, along with a fine.
“It’s not as simple as [what is] being shared in the media,” al-Karib explains. “There is a proposition for a law. I know the opinion in the international community, but trust me, we did our research, we spoke to the Ministry of Justice, and the Faculty of Law at the University of Khartoum. We have been told repeatedly that there is no approved law.”
Although the existing proposal criminalising FGM has been in place in Sudan since 2015, it was only on the 22nd of April that the council of ministers approved it. It now stands to be passed by members of the sovereign council, created following the ousting of former leader and dictator Omar al-Bashir. Several attempts were made to pass the law under al-Bashir, but they were ultimately quashed by parliament.
Brendan Wyne, the COO of The Five Foundation, which works to end FGM globally, is equally skeptical about the law.
“Although the ban has been agreed upon, it still hasn't been formally approved and enacted due to COVID-19 delays,” he says. “We are in touch with [the local government] regularly and hope that in the coming weeks it will be announced by the Prime Minister, so that work can then continue to implement the ban.”
While some form of FGM currently exists across 27 African countries and some parts of Asia – including Ethiopia, Kenya, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Djibouti and Senegal – Sudanese women are subject to one of the most brutal forms of genital cutting, which sees the clitoris along with the inner and outer labia removed. This is also known as “Type III circumcision”.
The practice can result in urinary tract infections, kidney infections, cysts, reproductive issues, painful sex and even death.
According to the UN, over 87 percent of Sudanese women aged between 14 and 49 have undergone FGM. Over the years, many efforts have been made to eradicate it. Countries like the Gambia and Egypt have successfully passed bans, while about 18 Sudanese states have sanctioned laws that restrict genital mutilation.
The reality of those laws in terms of actual implementation, however, is grim. It signifies an ongoing tug of war between religious militancy and local politics – influenced by reigning cultural mindsets that stem from interpretations of Islam that call for infibulation.
The practice itself predates Islam, however, so its categorisation as “Islamic” is incorrect, a view shared by many local activists who themselves have been subject to genital cutting. But naysayers and conservatives against banning FGM often try to position women’s rights as a cultural imperialism from the outside and the West.
It’s also why – even within the Sudanese states that have existing bans in place – they’re rarely applied and prosecutions are far too scarce, according to a report by 28TooMany. Egypt put a ban in place in 2008, but has seen too few indictments: 92 percent of Egyptian women between 15 and 49 have been cut, mostly before they reach the age of 12, recent data from the United Nations cites.
Jaha Dukereh, a Gambian women's right activist and anti-female genital mutilation campaigner who was instrumental in banning the FGM in the Gambia, says that while laws may help in mitigating the ubiquity of the practice, they can’t be fully implemented until there is social change.
“Laws alone don't change minds,” Dukerek explains. “Countries need to put in place holistic approaches that go hand in hand with community interventions to drive change in a meaningful way. Laws are great for prevention. Training law enforcement, for instance, is a good first step.”
She continues: “Creating hotlines where people can call and report anonymously is also helpful. Adding it to education can help girls understand their rights from a young age. These are the kinds of activities we are doing in the Gambia.”
Beyond societal perceptions, even if a law is established, without policies that account for the humanity and equality of women, it might end up being counterproductive. A good example of this is the existing decrees against adultery in Sudan, where women who engage in sex out of marriage can be punished by flogging and death by hanging. This also applies to survivors of sexual assault and rape, where, unless a woman can prove it occurred without her consent, she herself is subject to punishment.
Al-Karib fears that proposed FGM laws that target anyone who performs the ritual may end up punishing the women who are usually appointed to cut the girls.
“Our worry is the criminalisation of women,” she says. “Female genital mutilation is performed by women because in their mind, they are protecting the girls; they are responding to the needs and desires of the patriarchal society. So, our fear, which I think is pretty legitimate, is that it’s going to add another layer of criminalisation of the poor women. It’s very frustrating.”
Raising awareness, education, and drafting policies are a definite step forward in putting an end to FGM. But as it stands, the issue is too complex to fully dismantle. The practice itself put in place to control female autonomy and sexuality is too deeply wrapped in concepts of female honour and religious traditions.
“International organisations have mobilised a lot of resources on FGM over time, but unfortunately, [they have been] unable to really create change,” al-Karib says. “Why were they not able to? It’s because you cannot address FGM in isolation. It's interconnected to issues of women, equality and reproductive health rights. So, it can only be fully abolished if the Sudanese legal framework is reviewed, and reformed in a way that respects women’s dignity and equality. Otherwise, FGM will continue to exist.”