What do we need to know and remember about female genital mutilation (FGM) in Egypt, if the new amendment enhancing criminalisation measures of the practice, now ratified, is to make positive change?
How can the law become effective when society refuses to conform? This is a conundrum that has shadowed the debate and successive measures taken over the years to combat FGM in Egypt.
And while the passing of an amendment to the current law on 26 March 2021 aiming to ban FGM is hailed as a win in the battle against the practice, the trajectory of the past 25 years and the conversations in parliament yesterday are indications this is yet another beginning in a long battle towards the eradication of the practice in Egypt.
Up until 1994, a mere 27 years ago, female genital mutilation was an accepted custom.
In rural areas, many families would hold celebrations announcing the circumcision of daughters and receiving gifts. In 1994, this became a hot topic when CNN aired footage of a 9-year-old girl being circumcised.
This was ahead of the Fourth Conference on Women held by the UN in Beijing, and the video embarrassed Egyptians and their government. It gave momentum to women’s groups and civil society organisations who had been decrying the practice to deaf ears.
Statistics compiled in 1994 by the ministry of population estimated that between 70-90 percent of Egyptian women were circumcised. Updated surveys put the figure even higher, and a national demographic and health survey carried out in 2003 found that 97% of women aged 15-49 years had been circumcised, and 49% had inflicted the same fate on their daughters.
But in 1994 we were nowhere near a discourse towards eradication. At the time a decree was issued guiding state hospitals to set aside one day a week for performing the procedure.
In 1995, Egypt adopted the Beijing Declaration and Platform, but only in 1996, and after the death of an 11-year-old girl from the procedure, did the government ban state-affiliated medical staff from performing the procedure, signifying a health policy shift from trying to control the practice by keeping it under government supervision towards condemnation.
It took another nine years, however, to close the loophole in that very decree when the health ministry issued ministerial decree (271), banning everyone, including health professionals, from performing FGM in governmental or non-governmental hospitals/clinics.
It also took another 14 years to get the Egyptian Parliament to agree to criminalise FGM in the Penal Code, and in 2008 they approved establishing a minimum custodial sentence of three months and a maximum of two years, or an alternative minimum penalty of EGP 1,000 and a maximum of EGP 5,000.
The meagre penalties were obviously ineffectual, and another 8 years passed before aggravated penalties were introduced under Law 78/2016.
But loopholes in that law continued to open backdoors, facilitating the continuation of the practice. In 2015, for example, a survey carried out by the Ministry of Health and Population showed that an estimated 82 percent of FGMs on women up to the age of 19 were conducted by doctors or other medical personnel, indicating a “medicalization” of the practice.
This happened in spite of the fact that in 2012, the Egyptian Gynecologists and Obstetricians Union issued a statement declaring that FGM is not a medical procedure and is not included in any medical curriculum.
Furthermore, the National Committee for the Elimination of Female Genital Mutilation, which was set up in 2019, has repeatedly admitted that in spite of tireless efforts, the crime continues as a result of “cultural norms and false religious discourses.”
This is also in-spite of the fact that in 2008, Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa issued a fatwa condemning FGM and the Azhar Supreme Council for Islamic Research issued a statement explaining that FGM has no basis in the core Islamic Sharia or any of its partial provisions.
The current amendments aim to close these gaps and the current law now includes a minimum of five years for anyone who performs FGM; if the operation causes a permanent disability, the sentence would be no less than 7 years; in the case of death, the sentence would be no less than ten years; clinics who preform the procedure can also face closure for up to five years; and prison sentences may be given to those who spread misinformation in regards to the practice, or call for it to take place, or aid and abet in its occurrence. All in an effort to ensure the practice is at least no longer the norm.
It is unfortunate that the resilience of cultural misogyny in the face of years of public awareness campaigns, legal actions, and medical information was still not enough evidence for some MPs during the two-hour debate of the amendment that was passed yesterday by parliament.
“We need to take into consideration the culture of society”, “we need to protect the family, and this law threatens the family”, “the law can’t change society and our society is not convinced”, “there are types of circumcision that have a medical reason”, “the Prophet said so”, “criminalising doctors will only force people to use non-medical specialists”, “the definition of permanent mutilation does not apply as it can only be used in defining the loss of a useful part of the body like a hand or a foot,” were among the quotes reported by the local media.
And it is arguments such as these that keep Egypt as the global record holder in the number of FGM victims. In 2017, the UN estimated that globally over 200 million girls and women have undergone some form of FGM, while another 15 million young girls are expected to go through the process till 2027.
One in four of these women live in Egypt – more than any other country in the world.
But say what they may, we can achieve positive change. The 2015 Egypt Health Issues Survey (EHIS) indicated that the overall percentage of women suffering the practice was down from 97 to 92 percent.
The bigger win is that it was found that the percentage of girls aged 15 to 17, who have had the procedure, has dropped from 74 percent in 2008 to 61 percent in 2014, and the government is targeting to bring the number down by another 15 percent.
We need to know that the law will only be as effective as we make it, and our collective agency is needed.
We cannot just say FGM is a crime, we have to re-articulate our understanding of our culture to reflect not mutilation and violence against girls; but care and protection; to insure they grow into a society where equality and respect are the cultural givens.