In a world that is cut off and locked down, where barely any non Covid-19 stories filter in, the news of Sudan announcing a new law to outlaw female genital mutilation is like a breath of fresh air.

The new law, passed on May 1, makes FGM a criminal offense with a jail sentence for violators of up to three years.

In Sudan, roughly 87% of girls undergo genital mutilation. The kind of FGM performed is the most severe type 3, and involves the cutting of all external genitalia including the labia minora, labia majora and the clitoris.

The law is welcome news and serves as inspiration for activists like myself in other corners of the world, where FGM still menaces women and girls.

India’s Bohra community

Roughly two million people belong to India’s Bohra community and its diaspora. Between 75%-80% of Bohra women are subject to FGM. The colloquial word for FGM, inflicted on girls at the age of seven, is khafz. The practice is kept secret and hidden from the public eye. The community has a strong, well-oiled network with the mother and grandmother at the centre of it to ensure year after year, decade after decade, girls continue to be cut.

India does not as yet have a law against FGM, mainly because the government still denies the existence of the practice. Despite provisions of the Indian Penal Code and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences that could deal with FGM, the tradition has prevailed for decades. We need a specific law in India that criminalises FGM and deals with the propagation, perpetuation and support of the practice. There is also need to legally define the words FGM/khafz and terms like clitoris, labia minor, labia majora.

Unfortunately, a new law would not mean that all girls are safe. Changing a law alone cannot end the deeply entrenched practice, and many question whether you can really legislate change. They warn that challenging social and religious norms could incite a backlash, or that outlawing the practice will only drive it underground.

Starting a debate

In India, making FGM a crime, will not be an easy task. But then it may be the only way to bring it into the open and end it. I am a survivor of this practice and my research and advocacy work clearly shows many mothers, daughters, grandmothers follow tradition blindly, unquestioningly, ignorantly and clandestinely. Most do not understand the consequences for girls and their future.

Drafting legislation opens the door to debate, research, and mobilisation for and against. This process in itself tears off the veil of secrecy. It will force people to think, to question the need for the practice and the implications on the lives of their children. It will empower people to take sides. It will stiffen the resolve of those who choose not to inflict this upon their daughters.

Yes, conversation, dialogue, and grassroots organising is surely better than coercion and criminal prosecution. But what if years of attempts to start meaningful dialogue and find common ground have gone unanswered? What if a community silences, boycotts, or ostracises any who speak out? What happens when a woman, a girl who lives within the circuit of the family, society and has no means to step out? What about the threat of becoming an outcast in your own community? This is what happens to us. Is this not a form of coercion too?

Rights and choices

The organisation I built has been working with both men and women in the community, and we know how difficult it is for people to recognise that they have rights and choices. They may wish in their hearts to protect their daughters, spare them from the pain and danger of being traumatised, mutilated and denied the chance to ever experience sexual pleasure.

But standing up for this basic human right can be incredibly hard. Ignorance about the subject and the very real fear of social exile can be crushing. Conversation and dialogue are no match for the patriarchal control over women, sanctioned by the impregnable cover of religion. We need the support of governments and institutional bodies to give power to our voices and to enable women to take control over our bodies and our sexuality.

Laws can do what years of pleading cannot. When a Bohra clergyman was about the be sentenced for violating Australia’s law against FGM, the clergy suddenly passed 17 resolutions aimed at Bohras living in western countries where FGM is banned. It warned them not to perform khafz. This abrupt change of heart only occurred because the clergy member was staring at jail time.

Laws do more than coerce and punish. They also deter and dissuade. Debating and passing them can raise awareness, help vulnerable people take on the powerful and wealthy, and finally change not just what people do, but what they believe is right. As Salma Ismail, a spokeswoman in Khartoum for the United Nations Children’s Fund said, “The law will help protect girls from this barbaric practice and enable them to live in dignity… And it will help mothers who didn’t want to cut their girls, but felt they had no choice, but to let it happen.”

“Now,” said Ismail, “there are consequences.”

Masooma Ranalvi is the founder of WeSpeakOut an organisation committed to eliminating FGM. She is a petitioner in a case in the Supreme Court of India seeking a ban on FGM. She is spearheading a campaign for outlawing FGM in India.