Somaliland, the breakaway self-declared republic of Somalia has issued a religious ban, a fatwa, on female genital mutilation (FGM). Issued by the state’s Ministry of Religious Affairs on Tuesday, the edict coincided with the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation.

Although it promised punishment for perpetrators and compensation for victims of the act, the edict did not elaborate on the type or severity of punishment. It also did not say from whom the compensation will be paid, the government or violators of the ban. The ban pertains to the most severe form of FGM called infibulation, the most common type of FGM performed in Somaliland, where the external genitalia are removed and the vaginal opening is sewn or sealed closed.

“It’s forbidden to perform any circumcision that is contrary to the religion which involves cutting and sewing up, like the pharaoh circumcision, the ministry’s fatwa reads. Any girl who suffers from pharaoh circumcision will be eligible for compensation depending on the extent of the wound and the violation caused. Anyone proven to be performing the practice will receive punishment depending on the extent of the violation”, the edict states.

According to the World Health Organisation, over 200 million girls and women worldwide have undergone FGM in 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. The practice, which involves the partial or total removal of the female genitalia for non-medical reasons can result in serious physical and mental health issues including haemorrhage, urinary problems, childbirth complications, depression and post-traumatic stress.

The United Nation reports that Somalia has the world’s highest rate of FGM with an estimated 98 percent of Somali females ages 15 to 49 have undergone the procedure. Practitioners of FGM often see it as a cultural or religious obligation meant to prevent women from sexual promiscuity, ensuring they remain chaste until marriage.

“The reason that this harmful practice has existed for so long is that people believe it is because our religion or culture dictates that we should do it. The fatwa is basically a message from the government to everyone in Somaliland that there is no religious or cultural basis for FGM”, Ayan Mahamoud, representative of Somaliland in Britain, told Reuters.

Women’s rights activists in Somalia and Somaliland celebrated the edict noting it is the first of many steps in the right direction. “It took us 42 years to reach this day, but, this is not the end of the battle. FGM must be completely eradicated in my country and everywhere in the world,” tweeted Edna Adan, a leading anti-FGM campaigner in Somaliland.

Ifrah Ahmed, the founder of the Mogadishu-based Ifrah Foundation, said, “I hope in the next 10 years, Somalia will eradicate FGM; not to reduce it, but stop the practice as a whole.” Ahmed’s foundation has conducted FGM awareness training for over 6,000 youth.

Sheikh Khalil Abdullahi Ahmed, the minister of religious affairs, Somaliland, praised the edict, which he says addressed an issue that has been ignored for too long. “It was a problem that was ignored, by religious scholars as well as the society. Its victim was a young child who did not have the power to protect itself. Today we stand up for our girls. This cruel act of circumcision is a crime, henceforth.”

The religious ban against FGM follows closely on the heels of a recently passed bill by the Somaliland parliament, criminalizing rape and requiring prison terms for those convicted.