Sudan Finally Banned Female Genital Mutilation. But Will This Be Enforced? | Opinion

On May 1st this year, Labor Day, as the world stood absorbed in its own war against an invisible coronavirus pandemic, Sudan criminalized Female Genital Mutilation.

Sudan has always been very special to me.

In 1941, the Sudanese government gifted India £100,000 in recognition of Indian troops who perished liberating Sudan during World War II. It was used to build the Sudan Block in the National Defence Academy (NDA) in Pune, India. I am a proud graduate of the NDA, which launched my early career as an officer in the Indian Army.

This is why I am doubly gratified that Sudan has recently announced its decision to ban female genital mutilation (FGM) across the country.

My personal connection to Sudan also extends to my time serving there in 2004 as UNICEF's Emergency Coordinator, responding to humanitarian needs in Darfur. In the midst of the horror and the conflict, I saw first-hand how all parties in the conflict united to immunize children when there was an outbreak of the wild polio virus by ensuring days of tranquility and enabling humanitarian corridors to be opened up.

I also started the UN's first office in Rumbek, South Sudan in 2000. I saw the heartbreaking misery caused by the protracted conflict between the North and South Sudan, particularly the sheer scale of violence and brutality against women and children. Yet I saw hope. I witnessed child soldiers being demobilized during the conflict in 2001 and I saw the peace agreement between North and South Sudan in 2005.

It comes as no surprise to me that this beautiful and proud country and its people are attempting to correct the historical wrong that has been done to the women in Sudan.

With its decision to criminalize the horrific practice of FGM, Sudan has the opportunity now to act as a leader in the region and around the world on the issue of women's rights. FGM is prevalent in 30 countries, affecting as many as 200 million girls and women, primarily in the Middle East and Horn of Africa regions. In nearly half these countries, the tradition is to mutilate girls before they reach the age of five.

Taking this step is not an easy one for Sudan, given the deeply entrenched, traditional and harmful practice of FGM. As many of 87 percent of Sudanese women aged 15-49 have undergone FGM. Not only is the practice extremely cruel and painful, but it also results in a number of negative impacts on women's health, including genito-urinary infections, reproductive issues, and complications in childbirth. Studies have also linked post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to women who have suffered FGM.

However, it is important to temper celebrating this historic step with the realities of likely challenges ahead.

Banning and criminalizing the practice is only the first step. A UNICEF study examining 29 countries in the Middle East and Africa where FGM is still prevalent showed that 24 of those countries already had laws in place banning or criminalizing the practice. Despite these bans, FGM has continued unabated in many communities as an underground practice due to long-held—though wholly baseless—cultural beliefs regarding cleanliness and virginity.

Indeed, FGM is notoriously difficult to prosecute, with a culture of fear and secrecy protecting perpetrators and failing their victims. Even in the United Kingdom, with its highly developed human rights and legal structure, only one successful prosecution has been brought.

Sudan must follow this strong decision with action that will ensure this new law is put into practice to safeguard its population.

Some suggested actions:

  1. Widespread awareness campaigns engaging communities, and particularly men, and discussing FGM's adverse impact on the health of girls and women, and the baseless superstitions about its benefits.
  2. Cultivating local and regional ambassadors who can convey the crucial message of the need to completely eradicate FGM.
  3. Recognising religious leaders and communities who contribute to the eradication of the practice.
  4. Ensuring free and universal access to mandatory primary and secondary education for all girls.
  5. Using the large reservoir of army veterans who come from all parts of Sudan as agents of positive change in their villages and communities.
  6. Strict and uncompromising enforcement of the law and punishment for those continuing to practice, support or encourage FGM.

There are promising signs that Sudan is taking strides toward equality for women. Sudan already has a long tradition in female education. In recent months, a restrictive law that sought to "exclude and intimidate women from actively participating in public life" and that attempted to control how women dressed and behaved in public was repealed. In fact, women were at the forefrontof the protests and efforts to topple the repressive Omar Al-Bashir regime

Women like Alaa Salah, a Sudanese student, became an icon of the protest movement.

These actions fill me with hope for a country that I admire. As a feminist and champion of the cultural, social and economic emancipation of all women everywhere, including my own home, it is clear that strong leadership, courage and unwavering moral strength are essential to ensuring that women achieve full equality in the world.

It is only through equality for women that the world can hope to thrive in the coming decades. A McKinsey Global Institute report finds that $12 trillion could be added to global GDP by 2025 by advancing women's equality.

The conversation around women's rights and access to leadership roles comes at a critical juncture, globally. Experts are assessing the impact of the current coronavirus pandemic and lockdown on women's physical safety and mental health. COVID-19 is rolling back many advances women have made, and exposing millions of women forcibly isolated with their abusers to increased intimate partner violence.

Despite these setbacks, it's heartening to see Sudan take this significant step to protect women. As I congratulate Sudan for its decision to ban FGM, I also implore the country to use this opportunity to become a model and a champion for critical issues that affect women and girls such as child marriage and all forms of violence against them, within and close to its own borders.

Bravo Prime Minister Abdalla Adam Hamdok. Under your leadership, a new era can dawn in Sudan, and can share its light with the rest of the world.

Siddharth Chatterjee is the United Nations Resident Coordinator to Kenya. He has served in various parts of the world with UNFPA, UNICEF, UNDP, UNOPS, UN Peacekeeping and the Red Cross Movement. A decorated Special Forces veteran, he is an alumnus of Princeton University. Follow him on twitter-@sidchat1

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​