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Female Genital Mutilation On Amid Sudan Conflict, Dislocation

Op-Ed 2024-02-28, 12:07am

paleki-ayang-gender-advisor-for-the-middle-east-and-north-africa-equality-now-efba96c6d5dd901826afe4833ca2576f1709057274.jpg

Paleki Ayang, Gender Advisor for the Middle East and North Africa, Equality Now



Paleki Ayang

JUBA, Feb 27 2024 (IPS) - Female genital mutilation (FGM) stands as one of the most egregious violations of human rights, particularly affecting women and girls worldwide. However, when conflict and forced displacement enter the equation, the horrors of FGM are exacerbated, creating a dire situation that demands urgent attention and action. Where instability and insecurity prevail, the prevalence of FGM often intensifies, exacerbated by factors such as displacement, poverty, and the breakdown of social systems.

On April 15, 2023, war erupted in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), plunging the country into an intense political and humanitarian crisis with unprecedented emerging needs. As of December 2023, over 7.4 million people were uprooted from their homes by the 9-month conflict, of which about half a million fled to neighboring Egypt, a country that also has similarly high records of FGM cases.

Equality Now and the Tadwein Center for Gender Studies are currently commissioning a study in Egypt among select Sudanese families in Cairo and Giza to understand the particularities of cross-border FGM, to analyze the attitude of Sudanese families in Egypt towards FGM and to assess possible changes in the practice, such as the type of cutting, and the age of girls when they are cut.

Nexus between conflict, displacement, and FGM

Although Sudan legally banned the practice of FGM in 2020, women and girls continue to face heightened risks of violence, exploitation, and abuse, including FGM. Ongoing conflict has led to the breakdown of the rule of law and governance structures in Khartoum and a few other states.

Declaring a state of emergency permits the government to prioritize security and stability over individual rights and the rule of law. In some locations with relative stability, there is selective enforcement of laws driven by social polarization, exacerbating discriminatory practices and inequalities.

Additionally, in the chaos of displacement, traditional practices may persist, perpetuating the cycle of FGM and denying women and girls agency over their bodies and futures.

The nexus between conflict, displacement, and FGM underscores the urgent need for holistic, multi-sectoral approaches that address the root causes of the practice and provide comprehensive support to affected populations.

However, it is critical to redefine how the multi-sectoral approach could roll out within the context of conflict, specifically where legal protections for women and girls are minimal or non-existent.

The usual activities undertaken by activists and civil society organizations—such as advocacy campaigns, community outreach programs, and legal reforms—may be hampered by the chaotic and unpredictable nature of conflict environments, making it challenging to mobilize support and raise awareness about the harms of FGM.

Strengthening responses to FGM during conflict and displacement

Conversations about new and innovative ways where legal frameworks and policy measures need to be strengthened to prohibit FGM must happen, and perpetrators must be held accountable for their actions, even amid conflict and displacement.

A report on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Humanitarian Settings in the Arab Region, published by UNFPA in 2021, discusses the challenges and barriers to addressing FGM in such contexts and offers recommendations for stakeholders involved in humanitarian response and protection efforts.

This is critical, as the prevention and response to FGM are not prioritized in humanitarian settings due to lack of funding and political will. The report underscores the importance of culturally sensitive approaches, community engagement, capacity building, and partnerships to combat FGM and support survivors in humanitarian settings effectively.

Medicalization of FGM requires urgent attention. Prior to the start of the current conflict, Sudan had the highest rate of medicalized FGM globally, accounting for 67% of cases in the country.

The collapse of healthcare systems and infrastructure brought about a different reality that necessitated changing health priorities. It could be argued that the medicalization of FGM diverts already strained resources, attention, and expertise in-country away from essential healthcare services, especially sexual and reproductive health services, including responding to conflict-related sexual violence and maternal and child health.

Women’s rights groups in Khartoum and other towns have established Emergency Response Rooms (ERRs) and other community-driven mutual aid efforts that could be used to mainstream FGM-related interventions as they respond to emerging humanitarian needs. Additionally, efforts to integrate FGM prevention and response into broader humanitarian assistance programs are essential in reaching displaced populations with life-saving interventions and support.

Engaging communities, religious leaders, and key stakeholders in the ‘new social structures’ shaped by conflict and displacement can foster much-needed dialogue, dispel myths, and promote alternative rites of passage that celebrate womanhood without resorting to harmful practices.

Despite having different priorities as displaced women and girls—such as humanitarian, livelihood, and other urgent needs— empowering them with knowledge and agency is essential in enabling them to assert their rights and resist pressures to undergo FGM.

Addressing FGM amongst Sudan’s displaced communities

Community-led initiatives to end FGM among Sudanese communities displaced from Khartoum into neighboring states or neighboring countries must take into consideration the diverse ethnic groups in Sudan—each with their distinct cultural traditions and practices relating to FGM, with some communities practicing different types of FGM. This requires an in-depth understanding of the sociocultural factors that drive it.

Although wealthier households in Sudan and people in urban areas were previously less likely to support FGM’s continuation, conflict highlights the intersectional impacts on different groups of women and girls, and forced displacement could result in the practice being carried to host countries that may lack effective legal frameworks or enforcement mechanisms to address cross-border FGM.

Considering anti-FGM interventions transcend geographical boundaries and ethnicities, they must be carefully tailored to community needs. Cross-border FGM could also be driven by a sense of struggling to maintain a cultural identity and uphold perceived social status in a new society.

Reaffirming commitments to end FGM

At the international level, concerted action is needed to address the intersecting challenges of FGM, conflict, and forced displacement. The United Nations and other multilateral organizations must prioritize the issue on the global agenda, mobilizing resources and political will to further research, support affected populations, and strengthen efforts to eradicate FGM in conflict-affected areas.

Moreover, partnerships between governments, civil society organizations, and grassroots activists remain essential in driving a collective response that transcends borders and builds solidarity among diverse stakeholders.

As Sudanese women bear the brunt of violence and displacement, women-led organizations are instrumental in fostering resilience and actively rebuilding their communities. Supporting and financing these organizations should be prioritized, as it is not only a matter of promoting rights but also a pathway to peace and stability.

As we confront the grim reality of FGM amidst conflict and forced displacement, we must reaffirm our commitment to the fundamental rights and dignity of every woman and girl. We cannot stand idly by as generations continue to suffer the devastating consequences of this harmful practice.

Now is the time for bold and decisive action guided by principles of justice, equality, and compassion. Together, we can break the chains of FGM, offering hope and healing to those who have endured untold suffering and paving the way for a future free from violence and discrimination for all.

Note: Paleki Ayang is Equality Now’s Gender Advisor for the Middle East and North Africa

IPS UN Bureau Report