Customs travel down history through generations. They are the stories we heard as children and grandchildren. They are the stories we tell as parents and grandparents.
UNDP fights FGM in Egypt in partnership with the National Population Council, UNICEF, the UN Population Fund, UN Women, and in-country authorities and organizations, with the generous contributions of the European Union, and the Governments of Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany.
Customs have immense power over us. At their best, they enshrine the hard-won wisdom of our ancestors. At their worst, customs trap us in the past. We continue to practice some customs even after we learn that they are harmful and wrong.
The practice of female genital mutilation (FGM), common in numerous countries, is one such custom.
FGM has been practiced in Egypt for thousands of years. Many Egyptians believe that for a girl or woman to be “clean,” “pure” and “feminine,” she must have her genitals cut at a young age.
Many parents will have their daughters cut as a proactive measure so that they will be “marriageable.” Many religious leaders tacitly or actively lend their support, even though there is no language in scripture to back the practice. In some communities, men refuse to marry any woman who has not been cut. So strong is the belief that even some girls and young women buy into the validity of the practice.
That’s the story we’re up against in Egypt. UNDP and our partners in Egypt are working hard to tell a new story: It’s our shared responsibility to safeguard girls’ and women’s rights.
The World Health Organization defines Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) as “the partial or total removal of external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.”
The organization adds that FGM “has no health benefits.” On the contrary, FGM procedures can cause many problems. These include short-term complications such as severe pain, shock, tetanus and bacterial infection. In the long-term, consequences may include recurrent bladder and urinary tract infections, cysts, infertility, increased risk of childbirth complications and newborn deaths, and the need for later surgeries.
The practice is also called “female genital cutting” or, euphemistically, “female circumcision.” Whatever the name, UNDP leaders in Egypt say that many women describe the day of their FGM procedure as “the worst day of my life”—and one that has lasting consequences.
FGM procedures are “mostly carried out on young girls sometime between infancy and age 15, and occasionally on adult women,” according to data from the World Health Organization and UNICEF. “In Africa, more than three million girls have been estimated to be at risk for FGM annually.” Over 125 million girls and women alive today have been subjected to cutting in the 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East where FGM is concentrated.
A 2013 UNICEF report stated that Egypt had the highest number of women and girls who had had FGM procedures: 27.2 million.
However, thanks in part to efforts by UNDP and our partners in Egypt and around the world, the rate of FGM is going down.
The village of Beir Anbar, Keft district is typical of the rural villages that hug Egypt’s Nile River as it runs from south to north along the entire length of the country. Farming communities in these villages take advantage of the narrow band of fertile flood plains the famous river provides in an otherwise arid landscape. Many of the canals that criss-cross the fields, diverting water to nourish the crops, were first dug thousands of years ago.
Beir Anbar, once a resting place for itinerant traders, is steeped in history. And, like much of rural Egypt, a place where, historically, FGM has been a common practice.
On a bright, hot afternoon in November, villagers gather and cram into Beir Anbar’s modest community hall. Boys, girls, parents, teachers and even the local authorities have all turned out. A group of schoolgirls steps forward and assembles. The crowd falls silent as the girls begin to perform a song they have written – ‘I am born perfect with my body whole. Why do you want to cut us, and take away the rights that God gave us?'
At the end, the audience erupts in cheers of support. Together, they exclaim that FGM is "violent", "wrong" and "harmful."
In a country where, until recently, even mention of FGM was considered taboo, such a public expression is a moving and remarkable achievement, and clear evidence that the narrative on FGM in Egypt is slowly shifting. What was once considered a normal fact of life for so many young girls and women is gradually coming to be seen for what it is: an abhorrent crime, a violation of human rights, and a demeaning, dangerous practice.
This change comes thanks in part to UNDP and our partners.
UNDP and our partners in Egypt and elsewhere have been combatting FGM since 2003. This is a long-term fight to end a long-standing practice.
Using web videos, television ads, press outreach, social media and other storytelling methods, we succeeded in enlisting the support of health practitioners, media outlets, religious and community leaders to tell a new story.
Together with our partners in Egypt and elsewhere, we succeeded in stimulating a national debate about FGM. This debate happened in part because of our mass media campaign, which included powerful advertisements like this one featuring a married couple discussing whether to circumcise their young daughter.
This and other advertisements led to widespread discussion and changing attitudes. Ignacio Artaza, UNDP in Egypt Country Director, reports that communities that only a few years ago would scarcely mention FGM are now talking openly, thanks partly to the media campaign. That’s a critical step to eradicating the practice altogether.
We mobilized villages and towns to end FGM at the local level, creating “FGM-Free Villages.” For example, in March 2014 we celebrated 100 mothers in Aswan who have abandoned FGM, holding up their story as an example of what other communities can do.
By combining storytelling and advocacy, UNDP and our partners are moving FGM from a “tradition” to a crime. The latest figures from the Egypt Demographic and Health Survey show that we’re winning: The percentage of circumcised girls aged 15-17 has dropped from 74% in 2008 to 61% in 2014. And mothers’ attitudes are changing, too: 92% of mothers were circumcised, but only 35% of them intend to circumcise their daughters.
My mother was a midwife, and when she passed away I inherited her profession. I completed the necessary courses and am certified, and have been the midwife for the past 23 years. When I first arrived in Mahrousa village, I attended a literacy course for one year and was told that female circumcision is harmful. When people would ask me to perform it as a healthcare practitioner, I told them no, it’s harmful and will negatively affect the husband-and-wife relationship. In the past, those kind of problems could even lead to divorce.
I still deliver babies, but I have stopped performing circumcisions. In the past there was a lack of knowledge. People just didn’t know right from wrong. They used to think that a woman could become depraved if she wasn’t circumcised, but that isn’t true. A woman who is raised in a good environment will be educated and make good decisions. As for me personally, I have three uncircumcised daughters.
I have three daughters and decided not to circumcise them. Not only that, but I called on my acquaintances to follow my example. I’ve written plays and poems about it. I have an eight-year-old daughter and she calls out the practice at school, complaining to her headmasters that it is a matter of children’s and female’s right to life. There are no grounds for it. It is a harmful tradition that should be curbed. In the beginning it was difficult to ask anyone about the issue, since it was a nonnegotiable topic that wasn’t open for discussion.
We have urged schoolgirls to create a discussion group, called the “pro-freedom campaigners.” They visit schools in nearby villages and talk with colleagues and peers about the problems of circumcision, and how to talk to their families so that they will support the fight.
My name is Shaimaa Gad Abbas, from Aswan, in Nag' el-Arab village. I’m eighteen. I heard about female circumcision and its harmful effects at a seminar in my village. I told my mum, and that is why she refused to circumcise my younger sister, who is four years old. My elder sister has a two-month-and-ten-day-old baby, and she will not circumcise her, either. The project has succeeded, thanks to Allah.
My name is Sandy Samir Riyad, from Aswan, Daraw, in Nag' el-Arab village. I have two older sisters. Neither of them are circumcised, because our parents were convinced that it mutilates girls and affects their futures. Allah gave me a good body, and each organ has its own function. If an organ is cut or mutilated, then it can’t function properly. Circumcision doesn’t contribute to purity for girls. That comes from politeness and education.
UNDP and our partners can’t end FGM alone; we’re proud to contribute to a larger international movement on this issue. Our particular strength is our ability to convene partners in Egypt and abroad, and to provide communications expertise to “change the story” on FGM.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has been combatting FGM since 2003. Presently, UNDP is supporting the National FGM Abandonment Programme in partnership with the National Population Council (NPC), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) , the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), local authorities and civil society organizations and is implemented thanks to the generous contributions of the European Union, and the Governments of Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany.