In Egypt, female genital mutilation is still rampant
CAIRO - Large numbers of Egyptians show tolerance for female genital mutilation (FGM), while Egypt, which has legally banned the procedure, prepared to officially mark the international day of zero tolerance to the practice.
Egyptian girls tend to go under the knife because social misconceptions fan the practice and appear to be so difficult to change despite efforts by state institutions to reduce the number of such mutilations.
“There is a wrong perception that a girl whose genitals are mutilated is more chaste than another who has not come under the knife,” said Azza Ashmawi, the secretary-general of the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood, the national agency that defends the rights of children. “This is totally wrong and must change.”
National figures show how widespread FGM is. An estimated 92% of females aged 15-47 have been circumcised, a 2017 census indicated. The survey also found that in the 15-17 age range, 61% of girls had suffered FGM.
To some extent, the slight drop boils down to efforts by the government and the civil society to keep the lid on the practice.
Egypt banned FGM in 2008 and parliament criminalised the practice in 2016 with a law that stipulates prison terms of up to 15 years for doctors who carry out an FGM if the patient dies or suffers severe health complications. The law commits the Medical Association, the independent guild of the nation’s doctors, to fire doctors who perform FGMs.
Nonetheless, more than 70% of operations are carried out by members of the Medical Association who go unpunished, said the General Federations of Civil Society Organisation, a union of Egyptian NGOs. In parts of rural Egypt, the operation used to be carried out by local barbers.
“The fact that these operations are done secretly makes it hard for the authorities to track down doctors who carry them and to bring them to account,” said Talaat Abdel Qawy, the organisation’s president. “The solution will be for parents to stop circumcising their daughters and this will only happen when there is a change of culture.”
Female circumcision is rampant in the Egyptian countryside where families consider it a normal — and in some cases necessary — practice. Parents who would not circumcise their daughters in some rural areas, for fear of the health complications, would be considered revolutionary.
Behind the proliferation of female genital mutilation for some in Egypt is the belief that the procedure is connected to religion. However, the religious establishment in recent years has become heavily involved in campaigning against FGM. Egypt’s former Mufti Sheikh Ali Gomaa, who often appears on television to warn against FGM, has said the practice is a “sin.”
Authorities, who marked the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation on February 6, are pinning their hopes on the role of religious scholars, such as Gomaa, to dissuade parents from forcing their daughters to undergo FGM.
“Religion plays a very important role in the lives of people in this country, which is why action by men of religion will necessarily have an effect,” said Tarek Tawfiq, the deputy health minister for population affairs. “We are also taking a series of other measures to eradicate this phenomenon.”
Those steps include massive awareness campaigns against FGM, modification of the medical school curricula to show the dangers of the procedure and its effects on the physical and mental health of females in addition to the distribution of millions of leaflets containing information about the dangerous effects of FGM. The ministry offers training courses to health workers on the dangers of female circumcision.
Egypt’s civil society organisations have branded female circumcision as a form of “violence” against women and called for turning its eradication into a national strategy.
“Female circumcision causes death, which is why parents need to understand that they might be causing untold harm to their daughters by subjecting them to it,” Tawfiq said.
The National Council for Women, which operates a hotline to report on female genital mutilation, received 50 calls reporting instances of FGM last year.
“This is less about whether the person carrying out this abominable operation is a specialist or not and more about the destructive effects this operation has on the psychology of girls and their lives,” Ashmawi said.
“Although the physical pain connected with the operation goes away after a short while, the psychological pain stays forever.”
Hassan Abdel Zaher is a Cairo-based contributor to The Arab Weekly.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.