Continuing the fight against FGM in Egypt
Monica Naguib, Friday 4 Jun 2021
The government has been working hard to tighten up the law against female genital mutilation and to rescue more girls from this cruel crime


“They tied me up, as I was crying and screaming,” one young victim of female genital mutilation (FGM) who preferred to stay anonymous told Al-Ahram Weekly. “I felt betrayed. My parents had betrayed me without even thinking of explaining the situation. I told my mother that I would never forgive them for what they had done to me, no matter what,” she said.

The girl was in primary school when she was sent to sleep over at her aunt’s. “But I was never allowed to sleep over. I was circumcised there by a daya,” a woman who carries out this operation, she added.

Although the experience was painful, she remembers every detail. She recalls feeling happy to be allowed to sleep over at her aunt’s. But she was shocked when her two aunts forcibly took her to a room where the daya performed FGM on her. When she went home, her mother hugged her and said, “it’s okay dear, it was necessary.”

FGM remains a widespread practice in Egypt, even among some educated families. Both of the girl’s parents were well-educated, but they could not let go of the FGM tradition. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), over seven million girls in Egypt could be at risk of undergoing FGM before 2030.

In response, the government has recently toughened up FGM laws to decrease its prevalence in Egypt. Over the last year, the closure of schools as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic may have increased FGM practices, as school meant girls were outside the home, whereas the lockdown may have left them more vulnerable.

Hospitals were not an option for girls to seek help when suffering complications from FGM as Covid-19 cases were top priority. In March this year, the Senate, the upper house of Egypt’s parliament, approved a new penalty to be applied for FGM crimes. According to a parliamentary Health and Population Committee report, “the practice of female genital mutilation is still one of the worst crimes in Egypt, and the laws should be amended to impose harsher penalties for this crime.”

The 300-member Senate said that the amendment of Law 58/1937 aimed to fight against FGM as it violates the human body, contradicts societal values, and is illegal. The amendment states that Article 242 of the law will toughen up penalties for FGM to reach seven years in prison in case of permanent disability and ten years if death is the result. Medical professionals such as doctors and nurses convicted of performing FGM will face a penalty of up to 20 years in prison, and they will be denied the right to practise medicine for up to five years.

Article 171 of the penal code also criminalises supporting FGM. Parents who plan to perform FGM on their daughters could thus face prison sentences as well.

“As the current penalties have proved not sufficient to put an end to this practice, the new law imposes tougher penalties that will act as a stronger deterrent,” said Ibrahim Al-Heneidi, chair of the House’s Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee in the lower house of Egypt’s parliament.

Over recent years, the authorities have toughened up FGM penalties twice. The last amendment came a year after the death of Nada Hafez, 14 years old, who died due to a FGM procedure in Assiut.

FGM was first criminalised in 2008, and the law was toughened up for the first time in 2016. In 2008, the penalty was three months to two years in prison and a fine that ranged from LE1,000 to LE5,000. The 2016 amendment redefined FGM as a felony rather than a misdemeanour.

MISTAKEN BELIEFS

“When I researched it, I found it wasn’t part of religion,” one FGM victim said. “I never understood why they did it to me. But I was a child. I didn’t understand what FGM is and its repercussions.”

Criminalising FGM is one way to tell the public that the practice is also against religion. Ali Gomaa, chair of the House’s Religious Affairs Committee and Egypt’s former grand mufti, told Al-Ahram that FGM was a practice that should be strictly criminalised.

The Quran does not mention FGM, and statements attributed to the Prophet Mohamed allowing FGM have been found to be unreliable. “There is nothing in Islam that supports the practice of female circumcision, [and the] Prophet Mohamed never ordered that his daughters be circumcised.” Gomaa said.

Some Christians in Egypt perform FGM as well, as the US Agency for International Development (USAID) has revealed. Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church has explained that Christianity is against FGM, as it is a “clear violation of human rights” and negatively affects the victim.

Ayman Abul-Ela, deputy chair of parliament’s Human Rights Committee, has declared that it is time to correct mistaken beliefs as FGM is a crime against human rights.

Meanwhile, FGM, also known as female circumcision, is still a widely practised procedure that involves the partial or total cutting of the female external genitalia. Mina Gorgy, a specialist obstetrician and gynaecologist, told the Weekly that there are different types of FGM.

Type one, also known as clitoridectomy, entails removing part or all of the clitoris. Type two, also known as excision, entails removing part or all of the clitoris and the inner labia, the lips that surround the vagina, with or without the removal of the labia majora, or the larger outer lips. This is the most practised type in Africa, accounting for 80 per cent of total cases, according to research.

Gorgy said that types one and two are the most performed in Egypt, mainly in rural areas. Type three, also known as infibulation, entails narrowing the vaginal opening by creating a seal formed by cutting and repositioning the labia and other harmful procedures to the female genitals, including pricking, piercing, cutting, scraping or burning the area. Type four includes all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia such as pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterisation, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Short-term complications, like bleeding leading to shock or even death, depend on the type performed. However, post-procedural symptoms are the same in most cases, and pain is an immediate effect due to the absence of anaesthesia. The use of unsanitary equipment and in overall unsanitary conditions can lead to infections and may cause HIV and Hepatitis B and C infections.

The complications may extend to causing primary infertility and difficult labour later in life. The significant psychological and psychosexual consequences lead to many years of suffering.

FGM WORLDWIDE

The exact origin of the practice is unknown, but FGM was practised in ancient Egypt, Pre-Islamic Arabia, ancient Greece, and Tsarist Russia.

The reasons behind the tradition vary, the most prominent being the belief that it is related to religion or is effective in reducing sexual desire and therefore prevents girls from committing adultery in marriage.

UNICEF has found that over 200 million girls and women alive today have been the victims of FGM in 30 countries. According to the WHO, three million girls, mostly below 15, are at risk of undergoing FGM every year. The majority of cases are in Egypt, Ethiopia, and Indonesia. However, FGM exists in other countries such as Canada, the US and Australia, mostly among immigrants who still hold to FGM practices.

Some communities in Africa perform FGM on infants, as a report done by the WHO specifies. In Nigeria, the average age is 6.9 years. In Sudan, nine out of 10 girls have undergone FGM, according to UNICEF.

Many African governments have criminalised FGM as a violation of women’s rights. Egypt’s children’s law includes child protection committees to find and help girls at risk of FGM.

In the past, FGM was mostly performed by traditional practitioners, laypersons, midwives and dayas. After doctors and other members of the medical profession started carrying out FGM, the issue was brought to international attention, leading the WHO to condemn the medicalisation of FGM in 1979 in the first international conference on FGM held in Khartoum in Sudan.

The WHO highlighted the practice at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in 1982. In 1993, the World Medical Association condemned FGM, followed by the International Federation of Gynaecology and Obstetrics (FIGO) and other organisations.

In 2008, a UN interagency statement on eliminating FGM signed by 10 UN agencies was published by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), UNICEF, and the WHO.

Collective action by governments alongside regional and international initiatives is an essential step to ending FGM worldwide. In Egypt, UNFPA cooperated with development partners to launch a nationwide awareness campaign on National Day in February to end FGM in Egypt. The public was informed about the Al-Azhar fatwa (religious edict) and the Coptic Church’s position on FGM, both agreeing that it has nothing to do with religion.

The UNFPA campaign took place door-to-door last year with extra attention being given to Covid-19 protective measures, and it reached 14 million people in 27 governorates. The National Taskforce for the Eradication of FGM has reached 74 million Egyptians since its establishment.

The government is also keen to do more research to understand FGM’s prevalence in society. The Egypt Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) has been one of the most effective tools to collect such data, and in 2003 it surveyed women about their attitudes to FGM. Sixty-one per cent said they were entirely against the practice, and 42 per cent said they were worried about health complications. The other 20 per cent stressed that FGM was against religion.

On marriage and sexuality, eight per cent of those surveyed said it lessened marriage prospects, while five per cent said FGM negatively affected sexual relations with the husband.

“I have a daughter, and I would never do such a thing to her,” one FGM victim stressed. Even so, in 2015 the DHS found that among married Egyptian women aged between 15 and 49, 92 per cent had been the victims of FGM.

The report highlighted a massive decline among the younger generations, however. The percentage of FGM victims aged between 15 and 19 has dropped from 97 percent to 70 per cent in recent years.

CONDEMNING FGM

“Egypt will not accept violence against women and girls. Backed by strong political will, the government is intensifying efforts to seek parliamentary approval for increasing the penalties on the perpetrators of this crime,” said Maya Morsy, president of the National Council for Women (NCW) and co-chair of the National Committee for the Eradication of FGM.

“We are reaping the fruit of two years of extensive awareness around FGM, which has led to an increased number of families and medical personnel coming forward and reporting it,” she said.

In 2017, the National Strategy for the Empowerment of Egyptian Women 2030 praised President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s promise to end FGM in Egypt during his time as president. In 2019, the NCW and the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM) established a National Committee for Eliminating FGM that gathers representatives from all concerned ministries, civil society, development partners and judicial and religious bodies.

All members of society, including health professionals, educationalists, and religious leaders, along with government officials, have a part to play in eliminating FGM in Egypt, they said.

FGM is both physically and psychologically harmful, resulting in years of medical problems. The trauma left after the procedure often requires therapy so women can restore confidence in their bodies and overcome pain.

“I was in agony for two days. Psychologically, I was severely affected, but no one cared,” one FGM victim said. In order to resume a normal life, FGM survivors need both physical treatment and therapy, and surgery may be the solution to reconstruct damaged tissues and restore function to the sex organs.

French doctor Pierre Foldes invented reconstruction procedures to treat FGM patients after years of study and research from 1992 to 2008. He saw results in terms of decreased pain and improved sexual function and self-confidence in more than 3,000 patients.

Even so, not many women opt for reconstruction treatments. One FGM victim said she had never talked to her parents about the incident, but had researched it to know how to deal with her body.

“Reconstruction surgery is available, but victims rarely seek those services either because of a lack of knowledge or because some of them believe in the tradition,” Gorgy told the Weekly. “I’ve dealt with many victims, but they have refused medical intervention due to religious beliefs, and many of them would have their daughters circumcised.”

Reconstruction procedures can restore hope to FGM victims, nonetheless. But more people need to be informed about the effectiveness and importance of the surgery.

Overall, toughening the law goes hand-in-hand with raising public awareness about FGM. Every member of society should aim to raise awareness about the risks of FGM and the legal penalties of it, notably by reporting any suspected cases to the Women’s Complaints Helpline (15115) and the government’s Child Helpline (16000).


*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 June, 2021 edition ofAl-Ahram Weekly

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