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Photo Source:  UNAIMD

Understanding Female Genital Mutilation in Sudan and Around the World

by Maria Alexandra D'agostino       
          September 12th, 2020

Sudan has the fourth largest number of girls and women who have undergone a Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) procedure per capita. This research article outlines the causes and effects of the newly implemented legislation criminalizing all FGM practices throughout Sudan.

Content Warning: Please be advised that the following content includes graphic and disturbing explanations.

On July 9th, the Sudanese government announced that it had outlawed the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM), the removal of part or all female genitalia for non-medical reasons. A council of ministers approved this new law on April 22nd, but it had to be passed by the members of the Sovereignty Council, Sudan’s collective head of state composed of six civilians and five soldiers, to come into effect. Prior to the passage of this law, FGM procedures were highly medicalized across Sudan. Medical personnel have conducted the procedure on 8 out of 10 girls throughout the country. The new law states that anyone who conducts an FGM procedure will now face up to three years of incarceration.

 

At first glance, the Sudanese government’s decision is surprising, as Sudan has the fourth largest number of girls and women who have undergone FGMs per capita. That said, the historical precedent of the Sudanese government’s stance on the criminalization of FGM procedures shows us that this decision was foreseeable. The Sudanese government has acknowledged the levels of risk associated with FGM procedures in the past, most notably in 1946, when the risks presented by the Type III FGM procedure led to its subsequent criminalization that year. It was not until 1983, when Sharia law was introduced to the state, that the procedure was then decriminalized. Decades later, in 2008, the National Council of Child Welfare (NCCW) and UNICEF Sudan founded the Saleema Initiative, aimed at promoting the long-term abandonment of FGM practices at the community level by educating women about the hazards of FGM practices and changing social norms and attitudes; women without secondary or higher education are four times more likely to support the continuation of FGM procedures. This initiative proved to be effective when, in its first year of operation, laws were made restricting and banning FGM practices in some states throughout Sudan such as Gedaref, South Darfur, South Kordofan and Red Sea. However, no national campaigns were developed.

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A breakdown of the prevalence of FGM in each state of Sudan

Data Source: Sudan Multiple Indicator Survey, 2014

The current nationwide criminalization of these practices came following the ouster of 30-year President Omar al-Bashir in 2019. As Sudan’s government transitions into civilian rule, it has become more representative of the people by developing the Council of Ministers. This council is composed of highly educated individuals chosen by Sudan’s joint civilian-military ruling body. Unlike the previous parliament, which worked under President al-Bashir and continuously rejected the recommendations to criminalize FGM procedures, the current parliament works alongside the Council of Ministers in order to further advocate for and resolve humanitarian violations that are seen throughout the state.


According to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), 88% of Sudanese women have experienced FGM  procedures, most of which were conducted on girls between the ages 0 and 15, and 1 in 3 women risk having to undergo an FGM procedure. In light of this, the United Nations Population Fund Representative in Sudan, Massimo Diana, stated that while “banning female genital mutilation is a landmark achievement for Sudan … [the UN] must work with communities to ensure that practice follows policy.” In 2020 alone, 4.1 million girls are at risk of undergoing an FGM procedure, yet, on account of the disruptions to the international efforts to end FGM procedures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, over two million girls could now face undergoing a procedure within the next decade. The development of legislation by the Sudanese government outlawing FGM practices has enhanced the efforts made by international organizations and strengthened their arguments and/or operations during the pandemic. The passing of this law has created hope for human rights organizations and activist groups who have long been advocating for the banning of FGM procedures.

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The opinion of women in Sudan on FGM/C

Data Source: Sudan Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey, 2014

The reasons why FGM procedures are conducted vary by region. For example, undergoing an FGM procedure in Egypt is seen as a rite of passage for a woman, and also a way to  promote her chastity. Whereas, in Mali, undergoing an FGM procedure is seen as a prerequisite for marriage. Generally, the procedure is practiced across Africa and the Middle East for two major reasons: one, in order to meet societal norms and expectations; and two, to avert rejection by their community and/or families. First, socially, an FGM procedure is associated with the belief of female modesty and femininity, which would not only increase a woman’s probability of getting married, but would also further the notion that the woman is clean and beautiful. Secondly, rejection by the community brings shame to the family as the woman’s probability of getting married greatly decreases. Undergoing an FGM procedure not only promotes the belief that women who undergo it have a higher marriageability, but also that women should not enjoy sexual encounters, thus decreasing their probability of having an extramarital affair. That said, throughout many countries where FGM procedures are practiced, including Sudan, they are considered to be a cultural tradition - making them considerably harder to abolish.

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Percentages of women and girls that have undergone FGM/C in various countries in Africa and the Middle East

Data Source: UNICEF

6 Key Things One Needs to Know about Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)

1.  FGM procedures come in many forms. In 1997, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified genital mutilation into 4 categories:

  • Type I, Clitoridectomy. This is the partial or total removal of the clitoris (both the clitoral glans and/or the clitoral hood). 

  • Type II, Excision. This is the partial or total removal of the clitoris and the inner labia (lips), the inner folds of vulva. It may or may not include the removal of the outer labia. 

  • Type III, Infibulation. This is the process in which the vaginal opening is narrowed and a covering seal is made by repositioning the inner and outer labia. 

  • Type IV. This is all other harmful, and life-threatening procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes. 

 

2.  FGM procedures take place all throughout the world, not only in Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) countries. The United States, Canada, and Russia also allow for FGM procedures to take place.

  • In 1996, the United States developed the Female Genital Mutilation Act, which prohibited and set penalties for anyone who conducted an FGM procedure; however, in 2018, this law was deemed unconstitutional. Women, now, rely on state laws in order to be protected against FGM procedures. Currently, there are anti-FGM policies in only 38 states

  • Meanwhile in Canada, clinical practice guidelines have been developed by the Social Sexual Issues and the Ethics Committees. These guidelines, which include legal and clinical parameters, were aimed at improving and strengthening Canada’s care system towards women who have undergone an FGM procedure.

  • Lastly, in Russian courts there have been several cases regarding FGM procedures. The most recent case includes a doctor who conducted an FGM procedure on a nine-year-old girl without her mother’s authorization. FGM practices are also seen in the Sub-saharan Africa, Asia, and Colombia (by indigenous tribes). They, also, take place among peoples of varying religious affiliations; including but not limited to, Muslims, Christians, and Jews.

 

3. FGM procedures pose a life-threatening risk for girls and women. The characteristics of the FGM procedures are dependent on the socio-economic standing of the individual, as higher income families tend to use medical practitioners in order minimize health risks while conforming to social expectations. As low-income families are unable to afford medical practitioners, their daughters face a greater risk of developing severe health complications.

FGM procedures have been proven to have no health benefits, and regardless of how they are conducted, they may lead to long-term health consequences. If the procedure is conducted in unsanitary conditions and without an anesthetic, the FGM can cause severe bleeding, swelling, and pain that may prevent the passing of urine and feces. At the same time, an FGM procedure can cause chronic pelvic infections, urinary tract infections, and birth complications for both the mother and their child.

 

4. Socio-economic factors play a huge role in the prevalence of FGM Procedures. Even though higher income households tend to rely on medical professionals to conduct FGM procedures, they are also found to have lower FGM rates. At the same time, FGM procedures tend to be more common in rural areas, than in urban ones. This can be seen in Kenya, where women in rural areas are four-times more likely to undergo an FGM procedure than those in the urban parts of the country. 

 

5. Progress has been made, but there is still a long-way to go. Currently, there are 28 MENA and Sub-saharan African countries, not including Sudan, where the practice of FGM is still prevalent. That said, the risk of a young girl undergoing such practice has decreased over the last 30 years in more than half of these countries. As seen in Kenya and Tanzania, young girls are three times less likely to be victims of FGM than their older counterparts, whereas in Iraq and Nigeria the risk to young girls has decreased by almost half. In Egypt the average number of young women who have undergone an FGM procedure has modestly decreased. 96% of women over the age of 40 have undergone an FGM procedure, in comparison to their younger counterparts who state that only 80% have undergone the procedure. However, in countries where FGM is more culturally prevalent, there is little to no evidence of a decline in its prevalence among young girls. In fact, in countries such as, Chad, Mali, and Sierra Leone  there has been a 2–8 percent increase in the prevalence of FGM procedures over the last 30 years. 

 

6. Ending FGM practices. Due to the fact that this has been a longstanding goal among human rights activists and international governmental organizations, there is a wide-range of research, data, and plans addressing the ban of FGM practices. The World Health Organization (WHO) publicly declared FGM practices to be a human rights violation; leading the United Nations General Assembly in 2012, to create the  International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation. Following the creation of this day, the international community began to expand its efforts against FGM in hopes of eliminating FGM practices by 2030. In adherence to these efforts, the United Nations has embarked on a joint mission alongside the United Nations Population Fund in order to develop the Joint Programme on FGM, aimed at empowering women and girls through ensuring access to an inclusive and quality educational system.

Political science scholars have previously argued that in the case of Sudan, culturally accepted policy and commitment alongside the usage of mass media campaigns would be needed in order to abolish FGM procedures. In July of 2020, the support of the national government helped abolish FGM procedures throughout Sudan, but this does not mean that other MENA countries will necessarily follow its path. Despite great efforts aimed at abolishing FGM procedures internationally, the unfortunate reality is that they are still very prevalent.

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Protests in Senegal regarding outlawing FGM procedures

Source: Barry Pousman

Acknowledgements:  ​A special thank you to Samer Anabtawi for his assistance and instructions in developing my piece. I would also like to thank Andrew Ma and Elad Raymond at the Onero Institute for giving not only me an opportunity to publish my work, but also to other undergraduate students.
About the Author:  ​Maria Alexandra D’agostino is originally from Caracas, Venezuela, but she now resides in Weston, Florida with her family. Maria is a third-year student at the George Washington University studying Political Science and Criminal Justice. She recently completed an internship with Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) which inspired her to further her academic understanding of societal expectations of women throughout the Middle East. 

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