Warning: This article contains descriptions of female genital mutilation (FGM) which some readers may find unsettling.
Female genital mutilation, also referred to as FGM or female genital cutting, is a ritualistic practice prevalent in Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia, going back centuries. Though specific practices of FGM vary from place to place, in 2016, UNICEF estimated that approximately 200 million women from 30 countries have been subjected to some form of FGM.
In northeast Africa, Sudan is one of the countries that have been most acutely affected by FGM, with approximately 87% of women (roughly 9 in 10), ages 14-19, being subjected to some type of FGM (there are four types, to be exact). Recently, Sudan made global headlines when it announced that it will now criminalize the practice, making it punishable by up to three years in prison.
In Sudan, approximately 87% of women, ages 14-19, are subjected to some type of FGM.
This criminalization indicates Sudan’s authentic efforts in joining other nations where the practice is now being criticized for the host of medical and psychological problems it places on young women. But cultural and medical experts, as well as those with firsthand experience of FGM, are warning that outlawing the practice won’t be enough to get rid of it.
The Horrors of FGM
Before diving into the alarming details of female genital mutilation, we should examine the reasons behind its widespread acceptance and support in the areas where it continues to remain popular, despite increased awareness of the harm it inflicts on young women.
Disturbingly similar to the antiquated Chinese practice of footbinding (which often left its victims paralyzed), FGM is inherently tied to idealized concepts of femininity and in making a young girl marriageable by preserving her virginity. The idea is that FGM somehow makes women seem more virtuous to prospective suitors.
FGM is inherently tied to idealized concepts of femininity and in making a young girl marriageable by preserving her virginity.
FGM has also come to be associated with the Islamic world for its popularity in predominantly Muslim countries, though there is no mention of it in the Quran. Despite this, it has since become a core element for many fundamentally religious communities and seen as required, rather than encouraged, since the days of early Islamic practice.
Some supporters of FGM see no difference between male circumcision and the practices associated with female genital cutting, though from a medical difference, there is a very clear distinction between the two in terms of the risks and consequences. There are four categories of female genital cutting. Type 1 results in partial or total removal of the clitoris. Type 2 removes the clitoris along with the inner labia, with partial or no removal of the outer labia. Type 3 refers specifically to outer genitalia, and surgically closing or narrowing the opening of the vagina. Type 4 is reserved for any other form of intentional altering of genitalia, such as piercing or burning. Though the types vary geographically, FGM usually targets pre-pubescent, and sometimes infant girls, but is implemented before their young adulthood.
A Modern Day Response to an Antiquated Practice
Women’s rights advocates have long recognized the cultural damage of FGM as well as its medical consequences. For the 9 out of 10 women in Sudan subjected to FGM, many go on to have complications with urinating, painful menstruation, infections, and painful cysts, as well as complications with getting pregnant and delivering children.
FGM tells women that the way they’re naturally born is wrong and that an act of violence and humiliation is needed for them to be functioning members of society.
As unbelievable as these problems are it’s also horrifying to consider the message FGM has long instilled in its practitioners and victims: that these dangerous alterations are necessary, and what’s more, that women are deserving of it because they’re women. FGM has told women in all parts of the world for centuries that the way they’re naturally born is wrong and that an act of violence and humiliation is what’s needed for them to exist as functioning members of society. Not only is this an outright lie, but it’s purely counterintuitive — the consequences of FGM far outweigh its perceived benefits, and leave a lasting impact on many that is completely avoidable. Fortunately, increased awareness of its risks is finally resulting in pushback to the practice.
A Threat to Normalcy
Sudan’s recently passed legislation is a genuine acknowledgment of this increase in awareness. In a country where a criminal statute once dictated what women could and couldn’t wear in public, criminalization of FGM is a committed step towards improving the everyday lives and futures of its female citizens.
Many argue that legislation won’t be enough to eradicate the practice and that FGM will most likely be moved underground.
However, many argue that legislation won’t be enough to eradicate the practice and that FGM will most likely be moved underground. This is exactly what happened when Egypt criminalized FGM in 2008 (and again in 2016 with harsher conditions), with an estimated 70% of women still being affected despite the threat of prosecution to those who do it. Over the centuries, the practice and its connotations, negative though some of them may be, continue to be ingrained in the cultural mindsets of many, which may not be enough to counter modern sensibilities.
Despite the cynicism of many on Sudan’s ability to affect change, dissent against FGM has been growing steadily. UNICEF declared in February of last year that it’s committed to partnering with countries to actively work towards the eradication of FGM by 2030. In ten years’ time, opposition to FGM could thrive under governments like Sudan’s, or an underground network could place victims back in the dark ages. In the meantime, time will tell if Sudan’s decision is just words on a page or if it’s a sincere dedication to the betterment, health, and wellbeing of young women.