Last weekend, history was made for women in Sudan as the government in Khartoum approved a draft law to criminalise female genital mutilation, with convicted perpetrators facing up to three years in jail. The bill must still be ratified by both the Cabinet and the country’s Sovereignty Council before it can be passed into legislation. Should it become law, it would be a momentous victory for human rights; according to UN data, nearly 90 per cent of girls and women in Sudan have been subjected to the cruel practice.
Previously, under the rule of the now-fallen Sudanese dictator Omar Al Bashir, women’s rights were often subject to political horse-trading. Al Bashir’s alliances with extremists had long prevented the passing of any legislation against FGM, as false claims of the practice being a religious requirement are popular in Sudan. In truth, FGM has never been part of Islamic teachings or faith.
FGM procedures can leave victims traumatised for life. They are often performed in makeshift clinics or even huts, without anesthetics or proper sanitisation. Victims can suffer from a host of health complications and intimate problems as a result of the procedure. In the worst case, they can even die.
In neighbouring Egypt, a law banning FGM has been put in place since 2007, with increased penalties introduced in 2016 for perpetrators. Egypt's religious authorities have also deemed the practice as contrary to Islam in 2018, a step aimed at dissuading parents from seeking out the procedure out of religious concerns.
But legislation is not enough to put an end to this widespread procedure. If passed, the Sudanese law must be enforced, and perpetrators brought before a court to bring justice to their victims, most of whom were children when they were subjected to FGM. Raising awareness is also key to eradicating the practice. Many parents believe they are doing right by their child when they put her under the knife. Educating parents about the adverse effects of FGM, and dispelling any misinformation about its alleged links to Islam will be pivotal in shifting mentalities and saving lives.
When protests against Al Bashir erupted in December 2018, women formed a large part of that movement and were integral to its success in toppling the regime in April of last year. They are part and parcel of a new era in Sudanese history in which the citizens and the government alike are striving to create a better future for their country.
Sudan has long been plagued by corruption and extremism. These problems are by no means gone, but the country has certainly come a long way since the end of Al Bashir’s rule.
Last November, Khartoum repealed a law regulating how women act and dress in public by, for example, preventing them from wearing trousers. Perceived offenders had faced flogging, or even stoning.
Today, two out of the 11 members of Sudan’s Sovereignty Council are women, and the government includes four female ministers out of 20. Representation is still far from equal, but steps are being taken in the right direction. Now more than ever, Sudan is getting closer to protecting women and granting them basic rights they have been deprived of for far too long.