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In July 2020, the transitional government of Sudan passed a law that criminalized female circumcision. Article 141, appended to the Sudanese law, states that “Anyone who removes or mutilates female genitals, in a way that renders it partially or fully dysfunctional, be it at a hospital, healthcare centre, a hospice, a clinic, or other places – the perpetrator of the crime – shall be fined and sentenced to prison for no more than three years.”
Such a win was achieved thanks to women’s continuous work over the course of long years, on both official and civil levels. It made anti-circumcision groups sigh in relief, not because the battle was over but rather because the state had finally placed the thorny issue on the right path. For official institutions and civil society, criminalizing female circumcision, or female genital mutilation (FGM), was the main goal among several plans and strategies. In these cases, raising social awareness might be more effective than laws and the best tool to realise the desired ends. And yet a law that punishes healthcare staff and their assistants who carry out such acts helps tighten the grip on the practice and shows the state’s clear stand on women’s rights.
An official who works at the Child Protection Unit – a police unit charged with handling reports on children-related violations – said (1) that the unit has only received two tips, both reported by a father. Some anti-FGM activists interested in legal courses of action think that, in these cases, the motive for the report is usually a personal feud between husband and wife; a father resorts to the law as a way of settling scores with his wife.
A recurrent and longstanding legal battle
According to a paper presented in May 2022 during a workshop that included the Childhood Council, UNICEF, and the civil society organizations, attempts to pass legislation against FGM had started in 1924. Attempts continued until Sudan’s rule became decentralized, as ratified by the 2005 Constitution. It followed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), signed by the Sudanese government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). It authorized Sudan’s states to issue and legislate constitutions as well as many other state laws. It motivated many states to pass legislation under different names to abolish FGM. It had a positive nationwide impact on reviewing laws and making use of state legislation to pass laws. They did so by resorting to some articles in the Sudanese penal code, which prohibit causing extensive harm and intentional wounds and wrongdoing, an attempt to adapt these articles into fighting FGM.
The different population displacements that Sudan lived, due to heat waves, desertification, or wars, have contributed to the spread of FGM from one region to another. In general, one may say that the habit has been spreading at a larger rate among Arab tribes, while it is gradually decreasing among African tribes. This does not mean, however, that FGM has completely disappeared from within these groups.
While it’s true that the State has adopted a strategy to fight FGM since 2008, it did not take any serious measures to pass legislation on the practice itself. It contented itself with knowing that the state institutions and civil society organizations were reaching out to spread social awareness, without taking any legal action. Earlier, Al-Bashir government had tried to manipulate matters by reverting to a partial criminalization of female circumcision, but civil society pressure then thwarted the government’s plan.
“Law isn’t our final goal” would be often repeated among the anti-FGM groups. Everyone agrees that the stages that follow the legislation itself require continued work and efforts – so that they become fruitful. Following the legislation, a special paper (2) on the subject recommended that reports of circumcision should be closely handled and that appeals or complaints against its misapplication or misinterpretation of the law must be filed, in order to ensure that the experience is successful. It also recommended that Article 34 of the penal procedure code should be amended for FGM to be rendered a crime of public order. It would thus allow the attorney general, the police, or any other person to open a criminal proceeding against it. Furthermore, the paper presented during the Childhood Council meeting highlighted the importance of having more protective measures and heightened vigilance.
The latest survey prepared by the Federal Ministry of Health in 2018 showed a notable drop in FGM. Overall, the rates reached 27.18 percent among girls (under 14). The Red Sea State in eastern Sudan noted the highest rate, with 61.52 percent, the West Darfur State recorded dropped rates, with 8.15 percent, while no change was noted in the age group 15-49 years old.
According to the 2014 statistics for girls under the age of 14, circumcision rates reached 31.5 percent, whereas in 2006, they reached 41.6 percent for the same age group. The overall circumcision rates among Sudan’s women reached around 87 percent in the 2014 statistics, while the state of Kordofan ranked first – with 98 percent. The River Nile showed 96.4 percent, while Darfur had the lowest rate of circumcised women, with 54.4 percent. The prevalence rates of FGM differ between one region and another, depending on ethnicity, background, and cultural constants on which a religious character has been conferred. According to Amira Azhari, an official at the National Childhood Council in charge of child protection,(3) there is no other explanation for such discrepancies but cultural, which forms the main incentive for practicing FGM. Mrs Azhari also notes that the 2013 surveys showed that some ethnicities in the Senja region in Sennar State, located in the southeast, usually do not practice FGM - these are some limited groups with African origins. She also notes that religiosity is predominant in these groups. However, this is of little importance, as religiosity itself could be why this practice is common in other groups.
The 2005 Constitution authorized Sudan’s states to issue and legislate their own constitutions. Many states thus passed legislation under different names to stop genital mutilation. This had a positive nationwide impact on reforming and passing laws, by resorting to some articles in the Sudanese penal code, which prohibit causing extensive harm and intentional wounds and wrongdoing. It was an attempt to adapt these articles into criminalizing FGM.
While the State has adopted a strategy to fight FGM since 2008, it didn’t take any serious measures to pass legislation against the practice itself. It contented itself with knowing that the state institutions and civil society organizations were reaching out to spread social awareness, without taking any legal action. Earlier, Al-Bashir government had tried to manipulate matters by reverting to a partial criminalization of circumcision, but civil society pressure then thwarted the government’s plan.
The different population displacements that Sudan lived, due to heat waves, desertification, or wars, have contributed to the spread of FGM from one region to another. In general, one may say that the habit has been spreading at a larger rate among Arab tribes and that it is gradually decreasing among African tribes. This doesn’t mean, however, that FGM has completely disappeared from within these groups. Notably, studies and surveys on FGM and child marriages are usually conducted together, as there seems to be an attempt to find a link between the two phenomena.
A 2018 Ministry of Health survey showed a massive setback in fighting child marriages: 60.19 percent for the entire country as opposed to 38 percent in the 2014 statistics. According to Amira Azhari, the high percentage of child marriages and the waning battle against it have not yet been studied or analysed to figure out the reasons behind them. It is likely, however, that economic factors have been some of the most important reasons. Likewise, there are neither laws nor regular awareness campaigns on child marriages, as was the case with FGM. The State’s adoption of an anti-FGM strategy has perhaps had a clear effect on lessening the practice, whereas the State assumed no plan or strategy to reduce or fight child marriages.
The battle has only begun
As the law that criminalizes circumcision was adopted, competent authorities and civil society organizations aspired for an FGM-free Sudan for girls aged 0-14 years by 2031. The authorities are planning a “National plan of action to end female genitals excision/mutilation 2021-2031” that aims to reduce its prevalence by 15 percent among the 15-49-year-olds who had already been married by 2026.
The prevalence of FGM differs between one region and another, depending on ethnicity, background, and cultural constants on which a religious character has been conferred. Moreover, FGM and child marriages seem to be interlinked. A 2018 Ministry of Health survey showed a massive setback in fighting child marriages that year: 60.19 percent for the entire country as opposed to 38 percent in the 2014 statistics.
Anti-FGM activists and competent authorities are struggling on two fronts when it comes to female circumcision, because of another level of the practice known as “adal”; a re-circumcision done after a woman gives birth. “Adal” isn’t as prevalent as circumcision itself. According to a UNICEF study, however, one out of four women who had given birth undergo the procedure. It is carried out following every child birth and is based on stitching the reproductive parts. The operation may be done for aesthetic reasons, as a vaginoplasty for women with or without child, and for the unmarried who had lost their virginity and fear being persecuted for it.
Carried out in 2016, the study (4) notes that re-circumcision is widespread in Kassala, in eastern Sudan, at a rate of 62.5 percent, whereas the rate goes down to 16.9 percent in southern Darfur, where the considerations that explain the discrepancy here aren’t that different from those related to FGM.
Inaam al-Tayib has been co-managing the Media for Children organization, one of the civil arms that supports official institutes and organizations that work on issues related to children. Inaam is a journalist specialised in investigations; she has shown, through journalistic activism, great interest in children’s issues since 2002. It brought her into the heart of the battles related to FGM, child marriage, and other issues based in religion, culture, and customs.
Inaam says (5) that now that the law has been passed, the biggest challenge is to apply Article 141. After the law was in effect, the surveys documented around 16 FGM cases in central Sudan and in the peripheries of Khartoum. Some of these were actually carried out by one of the midwives who had received intensive training in awareness-raising about the dangers of FGM. Her case reaffirms the importance of a law that deters medical and healthcare staff from carrying out such procedures. And yet, the existence of the law itself might make FGM practitioners more cautious than before and lead them to carry out these procedures with absolute secrecy and discretion. As such, it would become more difficult for the anti-FGM movement to examine and combat the practice.
After the law was passed, the National Childhood Council and its partners in other governmental institutes, civil action groups, and international organizations that work in this domain, headed by the UNICEF, extended their action. It seems that the battle has just begun and that the application of the law requires intensive training, awareness campaigns, and, most importantly, the introduction of the law to the public.
During an anti-FGM meeting in May 2022, one of the activists shared her experience with the police. She said that as soon as she arrived to the police station to report an FGM operation, the police officer there made fun of her and snarkily asked, “And what’s wrong with being circumcised?” Although the activist was shocked to see that kind of a reaction from a person charged with enforcing the law, it was clear to her that the policeman didn’t know that a law criminalizing the practice existed in the first place – he was merely acting in line with customs and culture. The incident revealed an urgent need for extending awareness and training to include people directly in charge of applying the law or enforcing it on the ground. Investigators in police stations, who document the reports, must be targeted. Qualitative training has also regularly targeted the judicial system for three years now. According to an official report presented at the Judicial Training Institute meeting, the training has so far included dozens of judges, prosecutors, and consultants.
Official institutions and their arms have been involved in civil society organizations. Likewise, their supporters in UN and international organizations have been regularly addressing children’s and women’s issues ever since the law was passed and Article 141 appended, tackling the question of training. A UNICEF official says that the plan with local partners is to train people both officially and socially. Training has already actively begun in three states, while ten states are just about to join the training program. He adds (6) that police inspectors would also be included in the training program. Plans have likewise been extended to train relevant healthcare staff, in coordination between the Ministry of Health and the World Health Organization (WHO).
Furthermore, civil society organizations active in the domain have presented their initiative to the UNICEF. Agreed upon in principle, their initiative aims to ensure children’s rights are mentioned in school curriculums.
As the law that criminalizes FGM was adopted, competent authorities and civil society organizations aspired for an FGM-free Sudan for girls aged 0-14 years by 2031. The “National plan of action to end female genitals excision/mutilation 2021-2031” aims to reduce its prevalence by 15 percent among the 15-49-year-olds who had already been married by 2026.
It seems that awareness raising campaigns organized over the past few years have been clearly effective and found social support; that is, despite the war waged against them by Salafists in the government at the time. It also became socially known that FGM would inevitably disappear, especially in cities where awareness-raising activism was quite dynamic, as opposed to remote rural areas. The Salima (Arabic for “safe and sound”) Campaign, launched by the National Childhood Council with the UNICEF, coincided with the country’s adoption of an anti-FGM strategy. It was introduced into every household through various kinds of media and had a clear social impact. The practice successively diminished in 2006, 2014, and 2018, notably before the law was passed. As such, it shows the effectiveness of direct awareness-raising campaigns when it came to such questions.
The motives of FGM
Female genital mutilation (FGM) is defined by the WHO as the partial or total removal of external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. The question of FGM in Sudan is quite complicated, as it entwines the social, cultural, and religious. It doesn’t veer too far off from the political, either, with its paths crossing with the human-rights-based approach. During the past few years, when human rights gained traction all across the globe, it so happened that the anti-FGM movement and its allies were known to be opposed to the Islamist government and in line with liberal thought.
The case was thus no stranger to politics. In the past thirty years, pro-FGM voices raised within the Islamist regime have often resorted to accusing activists of being collaborators. They accused them of wanting to apply foreign agendas or even seek to dismantle conventional society. They considered that “female circumcision is socially linked to chastity”; it restricts women’s sexual behaviour. In their opinion, it protects society from disintegrating.
The Sudanese apply two types of circumcision: the more “radical”, called the “Pharaonic circumcision”, where an operation is carried out to remove and stitch all reproductive organs, and the less radical version, called the “Sunna circumcision”, which is an attempt to operate under religious cover. Trained and certified midwives usually perform the procedure, while traditional “circumcisers” are sought in a few other regions.
The majority of FGM procedures are driven by inherited cultural customs: “We will follow that which we found our ancestors do” (7). Some are also driven by cleanliness and hygiene, whence its popular name came: “tahara,” meaning purification. Popular culture is full of pejoratives reserved for an uncircumcised woman. Insults are often thrown at people for being the son or daughter of an “uncircumcised woman”. The “circumcised mother” factor plays an influential role in the passage of the practice from one generation to another. According to the aforementioned UNICEF study,(8) a girl is 24 times more likely to undergo FGM if her mother has as well.
It became socially known that FGM will be eliminated, especially in cities where awareness-raising was prevalent, as opposed to rural areas. Aside from adopting an anti-FGM strategy, the Salima Campaign, launched by the National Childhood Council and the UNICEF, was introduced into every household through various kinds of media. It had a clear social impact, whereby the practice diminished successively in 2006, 2014, and 2018, notably before the law was passed.
In the past, circumcision procedures were operated amidst celebrations and feasts; guests were invited, and girls were offered new clothes and golden jewellery, while their hands and feet were painted with henna - perhaps in an attempt to “bribe them” into enduring the brutal procedure, engraved in the memory of every circumcised girl and woman. Gradually, as voices were raised against it, the operation would be conducted without much commotion, even secretly, these days. FGM may not be totally eradicated, but the civil society battle continues, and thanks to popular efforts and direct social dialogue, some regions are now totally committed to eliminating the practice. Those include Tuti Island in Khartoum and Nasr village in the peripheries of southern Khartoum.
Are women’s questions exclusive to women?
It is important to note that rights-based issues, especially women’s rights issues, find neither support nor advocacy from political parties, be they conventional or modern. No party has shown any opposition or policy, whether in the past or present, against essential questions that concern civil society. Usually, political parties are involved in rights-based questions only when they wish to gain momentary political wins; their support ends as soon as the controversy ends. It is even very rare to find men who defend women’s rights in these domains. Ismael al-Mardi, a children rights and anti-FGM activist, shared (9) his experience with a bunch of young men who had led social dialogues in some of the peripheries of Sudan.
Ismael says that society generally finds a man who is a feminist activist very difficult to stomach, especially when it comes to a delicate issue such as FGM, which is widely understood as a procedure whose goal is to restrict a woman’s sexual behaviour. And yet, he says that he is happy with what he does, thanks to the tangible results he’s seen. Ismael relies on social dialogue in spreading awareness; it helps him evaluate the reasons that make each community endorse FGM. Motives, he says, differ from one society to another, even if they all eventually aim to restrict a woman’s sexual life in order to match a puritan collective imaginary of the “virtuous and honourable woman”. The radicalness of these factors that encourage FGM fluctuates, though, as does the degree of holding onto them.
In order to avoid the prickly debate on “sexual freedoms”, the anti-FGM movement in Sudan has clearly chosen to focus on the health threats tied with FGM. Some organizations that work in this field have been trying to integrate sexual freedom into public debates and awareness, arguing that every girl has the right to do as she pleases with her own body. In a meeting with a number of civil society organizations and official institutions, a UNICEF official (10) stated that concepts like these are difficult to propose in extremely conventional societies. Working to shake the religious character of a custom like female circumcision and refuting society’s convictions in this regard have proven to be an easier and smoother course of action.
Finally, having passed the law, the anti-FGM battle in Sudan will certainly show how serious State institutions and the judicial system are about it. It will also reveal the extent to which the involved civil society organizations are willing to go for the fight, and just how much indispensable stamina they have.
The content of this publication is the sole responsibility of Assafir Al-Arabi and Rosa Luxemburg Foundation cannot accept any liability for it.
Translated from Arabic by Yasmine Haj
Published in Assafir Al-Arabi on 16/06/2022
1- A phone interview the researcher held in April 2022.
2- The special paper was presented during a meeting held by the National Childhood Council in May 2022.
3- A phone interview with Dr Azhari in June 2022.
4- “Female circumcision and child marriages in Sudan: any progress worth mentioning? An in-depth analysis by using multiple indicator cluster surveys and healthcare household surveys of Sudan”: https://uni.cf/3aULaJ9.
5- An interview the researcher held in April 2022.
6- A phone interview the researcher held in April 2022.
7- Quranic verse. Surat Al-Baqarah, 2 :170
8- “Female Circumcision and Child Marriages in Sudan”, Id.
9- An interview the researcher held in April 2022.
10- Attended by the researcher.