For organisations working to eradicate female genital mutilation (FGM) in Egypt, a court's decision this month to refer the father and doctor of a 13-year-old girl who died from an FGM is seen as a ray of light in three years of political turmoil.
The unrest since Egypt’s 2011 revolution has overshadowed some of the country’s social problems – one of which is FGM.
Vivian Fouad, head of the capacity building and communications department at the country's National Population Council (NPC), which leads the anti-FGM campaign in Egypt – says that the topic of FGM has been "marginalised" since the 2011 uprising, along with other social issues.
"All of Egypt is occupied with politics," Fouad says.
Which is why this month's court decision is so unprecedented. At the heart of the case is the tragic death of Sohair El-Bataa, who died last June after being subjected to an FGM in the Nile Delta's Al-Daqahliya governorate. Her case was first dismissed as medical malpractice, but after pressure from various rights group and organisations, the prosecutor-general reopened the case and, after further investigations, slammed El-Bataa's father and doctor with FGM charges.
FGM has been legally prohibited since 2008, with punishments ranging from three months to two years in prison for those found guilty of performing FGM. In the case of a death, the offenders can be jailed from three to seven years.
Despite the law being passed almost six years ago, though, the referral of El-Bataa's father and doctor is the first time anyone has been given FGM-related charges.
FGM is usually discreet and authorities are only notified when a girl dies from the procedure. But even then, Fouad says, the doctor will either reach a private settlement with the girl's parents, or be sued for malpractice and not FGM.
The practice is rooted in Egyptian traditions and is aimed to preserve a girl’s chastity by controlling her sexual desire.
In 2006, Egypt’s Grand Mufti of Al-Azhar – the world’s most influential Sunni Islamic authority – signed a document denouncing the practice, asserting that it was "not necessary" according to Islamic tenets.
Still, FGM is prevalent in Egyptian society, with 91 percent of women between the ages of 15 and 49 subjected to the practice, according to a 2008 study by the Egyptian Demographic Health Survey (EDHS), under the direct supervision of the health ministry.
The study showed that FGM was more prevalent in rural communities than in cities – 96 percent of girls in the countryside had had FGM performed on them, as opposed to 85 percent in urban environments.
The numbers from 2008 were high. However, they were still down by 15 percent amongst girls between the ages of 15 and 19 as compared to the same EDHS study from 2005 – a sign that progress was being made.
Between victories and setbacks
Then came the 2011 revolution, and instability, and efforts to abolish FGM were sidelined.
One entity to witness a setback is NGOs Coalition against FGM/Cutting – a coalition of over 100 Egyptian NGOs working in the field of women's rights but which have teamed up to rally against FGM.
The coalition, established in 2003, has taken a "different" approach to eradicating FGM, says Magdy El-Khayat, head of the coalition's communications department.
El-Khayat says that the traditional method of telling people that FGM is wrong doesn’t work. Instead, the coalition has adopted a developmental approach – providing elementary students, especially girls, with financial and moral support. The NGO coalition also gives lectures to parents on family-related problems, like family planning, but also FGM.
The goal is to include FGM with other issues: when the problem is sandwiched between others, it becomes more acceptable, El-Khayat says.
El-Khayat said that activists thought that the 2011 revolution would create better conditions for women's rights.
Both El-Khayat and Fouad agree that a setback of the past three years was how Egypt's last parliament, elected in 2011 and dominated by Islamists, pushed for the legalisation of FGM.
El-Khayat points to the controversy that surrounded then-MP Nasser Shaker, of the ultra-conservative Salafist Nour Party, when he proposed a draft law legalising FGM in Egypt.
The law caused for Shaker to be publicly criticised by NGOs and women's rights advocates, who appeared on televised debates alongside the MP.
Shaker later withdrew the draft law.
Another setback, according to Fouad, is that the last official figures on FGM were released in 2008. The next study –– was due in 2013. But with an ongoing rotation of cabinets and health ministers, the data's release has been indefinitely postponed.
This means that anti-FGM organisations don’t have concrete figures to show the progress of their work or determine which parts of Egypt have the highest percentage of girls' who have undergone the FGM.
Yet, despite the absence of figures, there are some indications that FGM practice is in fact decreasing, according to Fouad. There are documented cases, she says, of mothers having FGM performed on their older daughters but not their younger ones years later. Or mothers who were circumcised when they were young but had decided not to subject their own daughters to the same procedure.
On the other hand, El-Khayat says that FGM figures from the next EDHS survey cannot be predicted, due to some ‘disastrous actions’ taken during the Islamists' reign in parliament – like Shaker's draft law.
Another case in point for El-Khayat was a medical convoy in the Upper Egyptian governorate of Minya, allegedly operated by the Muslim Brotherhood's political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), which offered medical services to villages for a modest fee. One of the services offered, El-Khayat says, was FGM. The FJP denied any involvement in the medical convoy, but women's rights activists filed a complaint against the party with the prosecutor-general.
Aside from the referral of El-Bataa’s case to court, Fouad says that another important achievement is in the media's more recent coverage of FGM. Before, TV programs would only cover the issue through a debate, with two different sides weighing in on the possible pros and cons of the practice. Now, Fouad says, the media only portrays FGM as an injustice upon the girls forced to endure it.
Another step forward was an event in Aswan governorate on 17 March, when 100 mothers gathered to announce they had abandoned FGM as a harmful practice.
The event's organisers – the FGM Abandonment and Family Empowerment Program, a joint effort between Egypt's NPC and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) – called the day a celebration, the result of 10 years of work in Aswan, which in 2004 became first governorate to announce an anti-FGM stance.
El-Khayat says that civic groups, like NGOs, should play a bigger role in Egypt's next government, especially with regards to drafting laws and policies for women's rights issues, but also by helping to represent Egypt internationally at conferences and summits.
He also called for more cooperation between NGOs and government ministries, as most of an NGO's developmental work depends on the assistance of the ministries of health and education, for example.
“Cooperation between NGOs and ministries should be an obligation and not a luxury,” he added.
Finally, El-Khayat suggests that the next government must be transparent in providing demographic information to NGOs.
Fouad, for her part, says the anti-FGM campaign is "finished and ready." She points to laws banning the practice, and their stipulated jail sentences, as well as all the organisations already working to eradicate the practice.
"Egypt's next government just has to put the issue on their agenda," she says.
Indeed, it seems that whoever takes control after Egypt's upcoming presidential elections will have their work cut out for them. Not only will the government have to implement the anti-FGM rules, but it also must change people's perspective and beliefs about the ancient practice.
Case in point: El-Batea's small village in Al-Daqahliya.
Most of the young girl's neighbours believe her death was a result of destiny, rights lawyer Reda El-Danbouki tells Ahram Online.
El-Danbouki, head of the governorate's Women’s Centre for Guidance and Legal Awareness, says that the neighbours think the problem wasn't with the practice of FGM but rather the doctor, who they feel had become careless over the years and simply made a mistake.
They said they would seek other doctors in the area to perform FGM on their daughters, he adds.