The following article will cover sensitive topics such as Female Genital Mutilation, reader discretion is advised.
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) puts 3 million girls and women at risk every year. Documented in 30 countries across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, it is estimated that at least 200 million of the female population alive today have undergone FGM. Despite laws against the practice, it is still carried out illegally in many places, breaching the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and multiple United Nations (UN) Conventions.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) have defined FGM as the “partial or total removal of external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons”. As reported by their mothers, the procedure is most commonly performed on young girls between infancy and 15 years old, often in unsanitary conditions and without anaesthesia. Usually dependent on ethnicity, types one, two, and four are practised on around 90% of FGM cases, which includes a partial or total removal of clitoral glans, clitoral hood, labia minora, labia majora, and other harmful procedures including burning and piercing. A further 10% undergo the most severe form, a narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal, which is called infibulation, usually practised in the north-eastern region of Africa. Complications can include severe bleeding, problems urinating, cysts, infections, general reproductive issues, and problems during childbirth which can ultimately lead to increased child mortality rates.
WHO states the procedure doesn’t have any proven health benefits, with complications costing 1.4 billion USD during 2018, expected to rise to 2.3 billion in 2047. They issued a joint statement condemning FGM in 1997, together with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Since then, cases have decreased rapidly with growing political support from those in practising communities. In 2007, efforts were renewed by UNICEF and UNFPA and the following year an interagency statement was released, collating evidence of deceleration over the previous decade. The UN General Assembly adopted the following resolution in 2012: “Intensifying global efforts for the elimination of female genital mutilations”, alongside the addressing of other prevalent issues in the global community such as sex trafficking and gender-based violence. UNICEF produced a report documenting the cultural beliefs, attitudes, and trends surrounding the practice in 2016.
Under article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being”, thus classing FGM as a breach of human rights law. It is also considered to be a violent act towards women, which invokes the UN ‘Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women’. If defined as torture, it violates the ‘Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment’. As reported in data collected from mothers of children who have undergone the procedure, it is most commonly performed on under-15s, which falls under the ‘Convention on the Rights of the Child’.
In a significant progression towards equality for women and girls in Africa, Sudan’s highest governing body passed a law in July deeming FGM punishable by up to three years in jail. Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok tweeted: “it is an important step on the way to judicial reform and in order to achieve the slogan of the revolution – freedom, peace and justice”. BBC Sudan analyst Mohanad Hashim notes previous attempts at banning the practice which were rejected on religious grounds by Omar al-Bashir who served as the seventh President of Sudan until 2019. He was convicted on multiple corruption charges after being elected three times amidst accusations of electoral fraud, finally being incarcerated after months of protests led predominantly by women demanding reform. The amendment to criminal law condemning FGM was approved on 22nd April, breaking with Sudan’s previously hard-line Islamist policies. Finance, foreign, energy, and health ministers were replaced in an attempt to “advance the performance and execution of the transitional period’s missions and respond to accelerated economic and social changes”.
According to the UN, 87% of Sudanese women have undergone FGM. This has prompted numerous rights groups to warn the practice may be too deeply rooted in their culture to be able to impose the law. On Wednesday 25th November, Sudanese police officers were instructed to inform and enforce the banning of FGM, with Director General of Police, Ezzeldin El Sheikh, highlighting “Police officers will have a major responsibility to intervene and curb this crime against humanity”. As Sudan has a largely Muslim population, religious leaders in local communities will have a key role to play in terms of influence when it comes to ending FGM. According to Islamic Relief UK, a common misconception surrounding the procedure is that it is an Islamic practice because it has a ‘purifying’ quality. They state: “this is exactly the kind of ignorance and injustice Islam instructs Muslims to fight against in society”. The charity claims “the few statements falsely attributed to Prophet Muhammad supposedly okaying FGM were declared unreliable centuries ago”, with a chapter dedicated to women’s rights in the Qur’an teaching that all attempts to “alter God’s fair creation” through FGM are evil inspired by the devil. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, an international organisation consisting of 57 member states, condemned FGM in 2013, calling upon the Muslim community to organise public awareness to ensure an end to violence against women.
Half of all girls who have either undergone or are at risk of undergoing FGM live in Egypt, Ethiopia, and Nigeria, despite the existence of laws against the procedure in those countries. In Egypt, FGM was banned in 2008 and criminalised in 2016, yet a government survey found nine out of ten Egyptian women still undergo the process. Arguments for its continuation lie in sociocultural influences, particularly social norms which mean it is universally performed and goes unquestioned within many societies. Advocates believe it is a rite of passage for girls and is vital in preparing them for adulthood and marriage. They maintain it encourages both premarital virginity and marital fidelity which, in turn, improves future marriage prospects, as the removal of the clitoris is believed to reduce libido and the narrowing of the vaginal opening creates a fear of painful sexual intercourse. Despite evidence suggesting further risks of multiple types of infection, it is also associated with cultural ideals of cleanliness, through the removal of certain ‘unclean’ body parts.
UNFPA estimate 2 million girls are at risk as a direct result of the pandemic, as school closures have encouraged some families to carry out FGM sooner than normal. Domtila Chesang, a Kenyan anti-FGM campaigner, explains school is “the main reason girls don’t get cut”, due to increased opportunity for a recovery period from the procedure and the seeking of the stability of marriage for girls. Somalia has seen a marked increase of cases during the pandemic, with evidence suggesting it has been acting as a social interaction opportunity, which allows families to gather during the lockdown. Practitioners have also been driven by economic hardship to go door-to-door looking for business. Egyptian-American anti-FGM activist and journalist Reem Abdellatif believes global focus has turned to Covid-19, allowing for FGM to take place while the world’s back is turned.
Female Genital Mutilation is part of a wider trend of deep-rooted inequality between the sexes and discrimination against women. The World Health Organisation continue efforts to eliminate the practice by strengthening the health sector response, building evidence, and increasing advocacy. The banning of this human rights violation is a step forward towards stronger protection of personal liberties in countries like Sudan, though questions still remain surrounding both implementation and the willingness to accept this attempt to undo generations of cultural practice.