From tradition to crime: The changing face of female genital mutilation in Egypt

In the village of Beir Anbar in the district of Keft, Egypt, young children and village elders alike gathered in the community centre.  A choir of school girls came forward to chant a jingle: "I am born perfect with my body whole. Why do you want to cut us and take away the rights that God gave us?"

The audience - boys, parents, teachers, and local authorities- stood up and cheered in support, together denouncing Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) as "violent", "wrong" and "harmful."

Highlights

  • With UNDP support, a 5-year national strategy for FGM abandonment and family empowerment was developed.
  • The programme held awareness sessions targeting 20,000 men, women and youth.
  • Medical caravans were created to benefit almost 3500 villagers and professionals received training on counseling and closing gaps in service.

Many girls and young women are still subjected to genital mutilation in the name of ‘tradition.’  According to Egypt’s 2008 Demographic and Health Survey, at least 91% of Egyptian women between the ages of 15-49 have undergone genital mutilation and 72% of the practice is conducted by medical doctors.  While the prevalence of FGM is down from 97% in 2000, combating it is a long-term endeavor that involves changing long-held beliefs.  

Local and national calls to end the practice amplified after the case of Soheir El-Bate’a attracted both the public and media interests in Egypt. El-Bate’a, a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl and a victim of FGM, died in June 2013 as a result of complications caused by this illegal and medically unnecessary procedure.

The Misdemeanor Court dismissed the case but two months later, the ruling was overturned and the doctor received a fine and a jail sentence for two years with labor for manslaughter, and an additional three months for practicing outlawed FGM.

The momentum continues with a national broadcast campaign that advocates putting an end to FGM and, for the first time in Egypt, features real testimonials from families who refused FGM, bravely faced community pressure and decided to protect their girls. Women who were mutilated and men talk about their own experiences and how FGM negatively influenced their marriage and life.

“In the beginning, it was difficult to talk to anyone about that issue, as this is an unnegotiable topic and not ready for open discussion,” shared one father.  “Yet, I bear the responsibility to spread the word and I must save my daughters and their acquaintances as this could lead to their death.”

“The strongest advocates are the families themselves and the reason is very simple: we are removing pain from their lives,” notes Ignacio Artaza, UNDP in Egypt Country Director.

 In 2013, with UNDP support, a 5-year national strategy for FGM abandonment and family empowerment was developed, in partnership with local authorities, civil society organizations and several UN agencies.  The initiative is implemented with contributions from the European Union, the Governments of Sweden, of the Netherlands and of Germany.

The programme has held awareness sessions targeting 20,000 men, women and youth.  Awareness meetings were held in primary and secondary schools at risk of FGM, addressing students and teachers, social workers and parental board members.  

“I heard about the harms of female circumcision in a seminar in Nag’ el-Arab village,” says Shaimaa Gad Abbas, 18 years old. “My sister is four years old and my mom refused to circumcise her.  She was convinced.”  

Recognizing that FGM is part of a bigger package, the programme also integrates comprehensive health, social and education services.  It supported the improvement of science labs in schools and nurseries.  Vulnerable women were aided in acquiring national IDs so they could receive public services and were trained on developing home economics projects to improve their income.  Medical professionals received training on counseling and closing gaps in service and medical caravans were created to benefit almost 3500 villagers.

Putting an end to FGM requires a cultural shift, and changing the mindset of families and individuals is necessary to move FGM from a tradition to a crime.  Already, people are recognizing that it is illegal for doctors to circumcise and young girls in schools say that FGM is a crime. The National FGM Abandonment Programme, set to run through 2017, will continue to institutionalize the issue and work through families and individuals to change traditions.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has been combatting female genital mutilation (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.