The taboo has been broken: Fighting Female Genital Mutilation in Egypt

Awareness event FGM Egypt
Awareness Event in connection to Family Empowerment activities. Photo: UNDP Egypt

"When I first went into the villages in 2005 to talk to people about abandoning Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), one grandmother screamed at me: 'if this girl doesn't have her thing [clitoris] cut off, I will cut off her head,'" recounts Himat, a coordinator working in the Upper Egyptian governorate of Beni Suef through the Young Muslim Women Association, a local Egyptian organization. Her colleague Samir elucidates: "It was so difficult even to bring up the subject of FGM. On one occasion the villagers disconnected the power supply to the hall in which we were giving a presentation; another time they circumcised some girls in the building next to the one in which were holding a function."

We are in Tazmin El Sharqia, a village in Beni Suef, treading through its narrow, dusty roads towards a nursery set up through the EU-funded UNDP FGM Abandonment and Empowerment of Families Joint Programme. The next couple of hours are spent talking to women and men of different ages about FGM. Some are now against the practice, others are doubtful; everyone has questions and debate is without hesitation.

FGM in Egypt

  • The 1995 Egyptian Demographic Health Survey documented that 96 % of Egyptian women aged 15 to 30 were circumcised.
  • A 2008 survey showed that figure falling to 72 % of girls within the same age group.

The campaign to stop the practice was escalated in 2008, with the passing of new legislation criminalizing the practice, with penalties ranging from three months to two years in prison, and fines ranging between LE1000 to 5000 (currently around EUR 108 to EUR 541).

"Previous programmes that dealt with FGM as an issue of gender and human rights were not well received by the Egyptian public. There were accusations that this was a Western agenda and people resisted," explained Mona Amin, National Programme Director. "So we de-politicized the issue, brought it under the banner of children's rights and designed a program philosophy aimed at creating a social and cultural environment conducive to change”.

The programme supported the national ownership of the initiative, and supported the criminalization of FGM. While disseminating information on the medical, religious, legal and moral aspects of FGM, the programme supports social activities that offer opportunities for dialogue and contribute to improving living standards: functional literacy classes, nurseries, and medical services are examples. "We want people to understand that at the end of the day it is not just about ending the practice but about their quality of life; that it is a package," highlights Amin.

The FGM Abandonment and Empowerment of Families programme funded through the EU by 3 million euros is a model of multi-stakeholder approach, unique in the Egyptian context, as it brought together UN agencies (namely UNDP, UN Women, UNICEF and UNFPA), NGOs, the Ministry of Family and Population, other governmental bodies, including law-enforcement, the media and grass-roots volunteers.

Challenges still abound. Mainstreaming the FGM campaign, sustaining the media campaign, expanding the grass-roots interventions and ensuring that the law is upheld – all face significant hurdles. Ultimately "The anti-FGM campaign is about changing people's attitudes and behavior," explains Nahla Zeitoun, Poverty Team Leader at UNDP.  

As our meeting with the villagers in Tazmeen El-Sharqia was drawing to a close, Abeer, one of the attendants stood up to speak, her five year old daughter sleeping peacefully on her shoulder. "I will not circumcise her," she tells us, adding "her father says we should ask a doctor, but if the doctor says yes you will have to help me convince him otherwise."

UNDP Around the world