Egypt Struggles to Eradicate Female Genital Mutilation

(Cairo)  Egypt had little cause for celebration, as it marked the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation this year.

A huge number of girls in the populous Arab state continue to go under the knife, even as Cairo made strenuous efforts to eradicate this practice, especially in the countryside where cutting the genitals of the girls happens in almost every home.

“We are adamant to put an end to this phenomenon because it is the most brutal and harmful thing we can do to our daughters,” said Azza al-Ashmawi, the secretary-general of the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood, a state-run agency that defends the rights of the children and the mothers. “Despite the progress made in many fields in our country, female genital mutilation continues to be widespread and constitutes a challenge we all have to face.”

Official statistics can show this very clearly. A 2016 survey by the National Population Council, which formulates population policies, showed that a staggering 92% of women between 15 and 45 years old were circumcised.

The survey also found that 61% of girls between 15 and 17 years of age had undergone the experience of female genital mutilation too.

Figures from the following years were not much different, even as the authorities say that continual awareness campaigns are causing a change in attitudes as far as the practice is concerned.

Female genital mutilation is most widespread in the countryside, where cutting off the genitals of the girls is strongly connected with chastity. Rural Egyptians tend to believe that a circumcised woman is chaster than another who is not circumcised.

But these are beliefs that are proving fatal. Some of the nation’s girls are dying as they go under the knife. In 2013, a 13-year-old girl died in the Nile Delta city of Mansura after her parents forced her to undergo the mutilation of her genitals. Three years later, another girl died in the Suez Canal city of Suez as she underwent the same procedure. These were only the cases that were reported by the media.

In 2008, Egypt issued a law to ban female genital mutilation. The law established a minimum custodial sentence of three months and a maximum of two years or an alternative minimum penalty of 1,000 Egyptian pounds (roughly $56) and a maximum of 5,000 pounds (about $284).

In 2016, incumbent President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi toughened penalties for those involved in female genital mutilation. The amendment introduced to the law made female genital mutilation punishable by jailing between five and seven years.

Egypt is among a number of countries where the circumcision of girls is still rampant, despite calls by international organizations for ending the phenomenon.

This year, the Ministry of Health organized a series of activities to warn parents against forcing their daughters to undergo this experience.

The campaign highlighted the deep psychological effects of female genital mutilation on the girls. Ministry specialists were keen to show that the psychological pain associated with the operation lives on forever with the girls and outlasts the physical pain associated with cutting their genitals.

“We have to put an end to this crime against the girls,” Health Minister Hala Zayed said on February 6 at a special ceremony organized by her ministry on the occasion of the zero tolerance for female genital mutilation day.

The religious establishment is also getting involved. Al-Azhar, the highest seat of Sunni Islamic learning, and Egypt’s top religious officials are speaking on TV and organizing special events to warn the public against maintaining the practice. The message these officials are keen to highlight is that cutting women’s genitals has nothing to do with either morality or religion, any religion.

Amr Hassan, the special rapporteur of the National Population Council, said genital mutilation is an experience most women never forget and lives with them for the rest of their lives.

“People need to understand that this procedure has no medical benefits at all,” Hassan said. “On the contrary, it causes untold psychological damage to the girls and can lead to their death.”