By Nita Bhalla
NAIROBI, April 30 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Sudan has criminalised female genital mutilation (FGM), making it punishable by three years in jail, a move campaigners said ushered in a "new era" for women's rights in the African nation.
Almost nine out of 10 women and girls in predominately Muslim Sudan have undergone FGM, United Nations data show. The procedure usually involves the partial or total removal of the female genitalia and can cause a host of health problems.
The Sudanese government approved an amendment to its criminal legislation on April 22, stating that anyone who performs FGM either inside a medical establishment or elsewhere faces three years' imprisonment and a fine.
Women's rights groups said the punishment would help to end FGM, but warned it would be difficult to change minds in communities that view the traditional practice as necessary to marry their daughters.
"FGM prevalence in Sudan is one of the highest globally. It is now time to use punitive measures to ensure girls are protected from this torturous practice," said Faiza Mohamed, Africa regional director for Equality Now.
"Having a law against FGM acts as an important deterrent, however, Sudan may face challenges in enforcing legislation," Mohamed continued. "People who still believe in the practice might not report cases or act to stop FGM when they know it is happening."
Communities may look for ways to avoid detection, while officials who believe in the practice may not uphold the law, warned Mohamed.
An estimated 200 million girls and women worldwide have undergone FGM, which is practised in at least 27 African countries and parts of Asia and the Middle East. Girls can bleed to death or die from infections, while FGM can also cause fatal childbirth complications later, say health experts.
In Sudan, more than three-quarters of procedures are conducted by nurses, midwives, or other medical personnel, says anti-FGM campaign group 28 Too Many.
In many cases, most of the vaginal opening is sewn up after removal of the external genitalia, a practice known as reinfibulation that can lead to cysts, injury to the urethra, painful sex, and inability to orgasm.
Sudanese women face a barrage of threats, from child marriage to domestic violence and rape. Yet there are few policies in place to protect women and girls. Marital rape and child marriage, for example, are not considered crimes.
Women's issues have however gained greater attention in the last year, following the prominent role women and girls played in 9-month-long street protests which ousted veteran autocrat Omar al-Bashir in April last year.
The transitional government has pledged to prioritise the women's rights, and Prime Minister Abdulla Hamdok has appointed women to cabinet positions of foreign affairs, youth and sports, higher education, and labour and social development.
The new regime also repealed its public order act, which tightly restricted women's freedom of dress, movement, association, work, and study during Bashir's 3-decade rule.
This included preventing women from wearing trousers or leaving their hair uncovered in public, or mixing with men other than their husbands or an immediate relative. Those found to have contravened the law could be punished with flogging.
Anti-FGM campaigners said criminalisation of the internationally condemned practice was a sign of the new government's commitment towards democracy and equality.
"Sudan has truly entered a new era for girl rights with criminalisation of FGM. What an incredible day for my sisters and the future of Africa," tweeted Somali-born British campaigner Nimco Ali. "Sudan I am so proud of you. May Allah guide give you and your people the peace and democracy you have longed for. And thank you for placing the protection of women and girls at the heart of this new chapter."
(Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)