The transitional government of Sudan announced on April 22 that it amended its criminal code in order to ban the practice of female genital mutilation.

Up to a three-year prison sentence can now be imposed for violations.

Women’s rights groups, the United Nations Children’s Fund and the World Health Organization (WHO) praised the decision.

Sudan has one of the highest rates of female genital mutilation in the world. While numbers are hard to verify, the U.N. estimates nearly 87% of Sudanese women between 14 and 49 have had some degree of alteration.

In recent years, there have been several attempts to outlaw the practice in Sudan, but the country’s former dictator, Omar al-Bashir, has repeatedly rejected these.

He insisted upon oppressive policies, which range from dress codes for women to limitations on education to defending female genital mutilation.

Most Westerners are unfamiliar with the practices of female genital mutilation, also known as female circumcision, because it was banned in the United States and Europe decades ago.

According to WHO, there are four types of female genital mutilation, which are explained here.

These nonmedical procedures are enacted frequently in 30 countries from Africa to the Middle East to Asia.

An estimated 200 million women and girls worldwide have undergone female genital mutilation. Most of the time it is conducted as a rite of passage for girls in their mid-teen years.

Unlike male circumcision, which is frequently seen in Islamic, Jewish and Christian cultures, women and girls suffer significant negative impacts from female genital mutilation.

Short-term complications can be excess pain, infection, shock and death. Long-term consequences include frequent urinary problems, an elevated number of urinary tract infections, pain during intercourse and problems in childbirth, including maternal mortality.

Philo of Alexander and the Greek physician Galan attested in the first and second centuries, respectively, that female genital mutilation was practiced throughout the ancient Near East, revealing centuries of female suffering due to the practice.

This begs the question, “Why is it still conducted today?” Modern justifications, like the ancient ones, are linked to centuries of gender inequality and patriarchalism.

Some justify the practice by arguing it is demanded by religion, but they are unable to present doctrinal or scriptural grounds.

Christianity has no scriptural requirement for female genital mutilation, but it is still practiced by several Christian groups in sub-Saharan Africa.

Judaism has rejected the idea, except for a very small group of Ethiopian Jews.

The Quran has no requirement for female genital mutilation. A few nonbinding minor Hadiths call the practice noble, yet it is not an obligation.

Religious defenses may have more to do with historical culture than official religious doctrine.

In other words, female genital mutilation has been carried out for centuries. Therefore, it is assumed it is a religious requirement.

While these justifications have been around for centuries, it is difficult to ignore the brutality of female genital mutilation when considering the medical complications. Therefore, most of the world has shunned the practice.

In the countries where female genital mutilation is still common, progress in eradicating the practice has been slow in spite of the growing number of countries with bans.

Egypt, for example, is one of the most industrial nations in the world, but it has one of the highest rates of female genital mutilation in the world.

While Egypt criminalized the practice in 2008, they rarely see a conviction because public opinion still assumes it is a religious obligation and is often promoted by women.

In fact, many medical professionals carry out a high percentage of procedures in Egypt.

What more can be done when nations have banned the practice, but it continues to thrive?

First, we need to understand the dynamics of true cultural change.

A practice can be made illegal and governments can fund responses and campaigns, but things will not change until people start to think differently.

They have to ask, “Why do we do this?” and “What benefit is it to society, my family or me?”

Cultural worldviews color and filter everything we see and think. These conceptual schemes resist change, but change can happen.

They need to be challenged in open dialogue, and religious leaders need to speak out against those who would seek to use their sacred texts as justification for female genital mutilation.

Second, we need to be better informed about female genital mutilation and more vocal in our opposition to it.

Just like in Western countries, female sexual issues are rarely discussed and often considered taboo. In many of the countries where female genital mutilation is common, the practice is either ignored or not discussed publicly.

Silence does not encourage debate and discussion. Lack of dialogue does nothing to encourage people to reflect upon the purpose and nature of female genital mutilation, which means the practice is likely to continue.

This is a time for education and public outcry. This is what took place in Sudan. Women led the way in removing al-Bashir, whose policies were oppressive to women.

These emerging voices need to hear not only the support of entities like the U.N., but also of faith-based organizations, missionary agencies and other nongovernmental organizations.

Sexual issues, gender inequality and female genital mutilation need to no longer be discussed in the dark or held taboo.

They need the light of public dialogue shined upon them, so we can finally bring an end to the horrific practice of female genital mutilation.

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