Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is not new to Egypt, with as many as 87.2% of the country’s women having experienced it.
The Egyptian Government has long been trying to curb and end its practice, with the National Council for Women (NCW) also adopting anti-FGM strategies since 2016.
Recently the Egyptian cabinet approved a draft law submitted by the National Committee for the Eradication of FGM, which is co-chaired by the NCW and the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM).
Another important stride in ending FGM
The child rights organisation, Plan International Egypt, has commended the new amendments to the FGM law approved by Egypt’s Cabinet. It described it as a necessary stride towards eliminating a practice that violates the basic rights of all girls.
The new amendment to Article 242 sets a minimum of five years imprisonment for removing, modifying, or mutilating a part of a female’s genitals. It also sets a minimum of seven years if the procedure causes permanent damage.
“FGM is a harmful practice, a horrific act of violence against girls that must be eradicated,” said Engee Soliman, strategic partnerships and advocacy manager at Plan International Egypt.
“It is a traumatic and painful procedure for those forced to endure it, causing infection, haemorrhage and sadly sometimes life-long physical and emotional negative impacts, and in the worst case even death,” she added, “Toughening laws and penalties is important to deter anyone who is intending to subject girls to such horrible practice.”
Soliman notes that working on changing community acceptance of such a practice and strengthening reporting and responding mechanisms are of equal importance.
Under the changes, medical professionals convicted of performing circumcision will be struck off the medical register and barred from practicing their profession for five years. The institution where the circumcision was performed would be closed.
The amendments also state that the person upon whose request the circumcision is carried out is to face a prison sentence.
Additionally, those who promote, encourage, or incite others to commit FGM also face prison terms, even if their actions do not directly lead to the crime being committed.
This is the second time the Egyptian authorities have toughened penalties for FGM in six years. The decision comes one year after a teenager died in Upper Egypt while being subjected to the procedure.
“The amendments demonstrates how the protection of girls from violence is increasingly a national priority, and comes as a response to the diligent efforts of the national committee for the eradication of FGM that Plan International Egypt is a member of,” adds Soliman
She asserted that while reports show that FGM is in decline, more still needs to be done to eliminate it.
“FGM is based on deeply-rooted social norms, misconceptions and damaging gender stereotypes that discriminate against girls,” Soliman said, “Tackling these views and changing attitudes is critical to eliminating FGM.”
She noted that Plan International Egypt is working hard to achieve this in the communities where it works. It is orchestrating efforts with all other government and civil society actors under the umbrella of the Egyptian National Committee for the elimination of FGM, led by the NCW and the NCCM, Soliman said.
And it is starting to see results. According to 2018 Ministry of Health and Population data, the rate of FGM among teenage girls aged 15 to 17 fell from 74% in 2008 to 61% in 2014.
Change through education
“I will never forget the day of my surgery,” says 17-year-old Nour, “I spent months unable to stand.”
In Egypt, it is very uncommon for teenage girls to discuss issues such as FGM, marriage, or education with their fathers. But Nour, who describes herself as “bold”, used her experience to convince her father not to subject her younger sisters to FGM. His change of heart came after she told him how the procedure made her feel and how it has affected her life.
She found the courage to do so after taking part in sessions dedicated to raising awareness of child rights, run by Plan International and a community development association in the Qena Governorate, where she lives.
She was introduced to the programme three years ago by a friend and describes it as a turning point in her life, allowing her to learn about child rights.
“In the beginning, I was very shy, I couldn’t speak up or have a discussion, even if I was right,” she says.
However, over time the sessions gave Nour more confidence in herself and her choices.
“I was attending the sessions which were complementing each other, and every day we learnt something new,” she explains, “In the beginning, I didn’t know what I wanted from my life, but I learned how to take decisions and how to plan for my future.”
Describing some of the activities that helped boost her confidence, Nour says, “I knew about my body’s boundaries from this programme, how to find my way and discover myself.”
She added that the participants would write their goals and what they like on boards. They even made a commercial about a project, where the participants learned how to market it.
“I was part of the acting team and in a sketch about street children,” Nour said.
Building these skills has had a profound impact on Nour’s life, and she says the programme has also opened her mind to new topics and issues, including the risks of early marriage.
As a result, she persuaded her father to stop hitting her younger sisters, and not to marry her off while she was still a child.
Nour explains that as the eldest daughter in her family, everyone around her expected her to get married quickly to “make her family happy”. From the age of 15, she says she would be approached by potential husbands, but that realising what she wanted her life to be like gave her the courage to refuse to marry so young.
“I wanted to continue my education after I finished middle school,” she continues, “All the people in my close circle told me that the education is not important for girls, but I convinced my father that I will continue my education.”
When she turned 17, her father tried to open the discussion again, with Nour saying that he spoke to her about it again after many girls in her family had got married.
But Nour, who is determined to go to university to study medicine or physiotherapy, refused again.
“How could I marry when I am still a child and still have a life to live?” she asked, “About the other girls who got married very early, they will regret it and they will not have the opportunities I am fighting for.”
“We made the mistake once, there is no need to repeat it with my sisters,” says 18-year-old Rania.
Rania, 18, could never have imagined herself standing in front of people in her village, performing a song and play encouraging them to reject FGM.
Three years ago, she says she was very shy and did not think she had the ability to express herself. She was so afraid of making mistakes that she never spoke and would hide away in “permanent silence”.
Today, she not only raises vital awareness of the harmful impact of FGM in her community, but she has also persuaded her own mother not to subject her younger sisters to the practice. She now has a technical diploma under her belt.
The teenager, who lives in a village in the Qena Governorate, says it was a child rights programme organised by Plan International and implemented by a local community development association that built her confidence. The programme helped her to learn about her rights and articulate her feelings.
“When we started the programme, we learned a lot about early marriage, harassment and FGM,” explains Rania, who has seven sisters and one brother.
Of all of the girls in their family, only the youngest two, aged 10 and 4, have not undergone FGM. Through the sessions, Rania learnt that FGM is not something that girls have to go through, and has many negative impact on girls’ health, whether after marriage or during pregnancy.
Rania says the project has also helped her to protect herself from physical and sexual harassment and attacks from relatives or teachers, and to express her rights.
“I keep expressing my opinion, and I know that I have the right to education, and I ask teachers to explain to me when I don’t get something,” she says, “Before, I used to be afraid to even talk to them.”
Because Rania’s FGM took place under anaesthesia, she says she does not remember the pain, but she can still recall how fearful she felt to this very day. This, she says, is why she insisted that she did not want her younger sisters to face the same experience.
“My mother had the intention to make them go through FGM surgery, but after I learned about its negative effects on girls, I convinced her not to and to stop thinking about it,” she explains, “My mother used to tell me that FGM is a custom we have to do to our girls, but after I learned a lot about its damage on girls through Plan International’s programmes, I changed my mother’s mind.
Rania told her mother of the dangerous the consequences of FGM.
“I told her how FGM has a bad effect on girls’ health after marriage, and that she even might not be able to have children, and how it’s wrongly thought that FGM is something related to religion, but even Saudi Arabia doesn’t have this custom in their community,” Rania said.
Thanks to Rania’s insistence, her two younger sisters have not been subjected to FGM.
Now, she spends her days taking part in theatrical and musical performances raising awareness of the harm caused by the practice within her wider community.
“We perform in our village to convince people about the danger of FGM so they stop it,” she explains.
“Before the beginning of the project, I would not have had the courage to sing, and I would have been nervous if I took part in the school’s news, but Plan International gave me an opportunity to perform and since then, I am not afraid anymore,” Rania said.
Others have said that they thought FGM was a religious must, a view held by housewife Rokaya, who added that she thought it protects girls’ honour.
Rokaya, a mother to four sons and three daughters, comes from a rural community in Upper Egypt, and grew up believing that FGM was a way of protecting girls.
Today, she is a passionate advocate against the practice, and spends her days visiting people in her community who she knows have daughters who are at risk of being cut or married at a young age.
Rokaya speaks to them about the harm caused by these practices and encourages them to reconsider.
Her journey began when she became involved in awareness raising activities organised by Plan International, as part of a project called “Empowering Civil Society to combat FGM”.
During her time on the project, she was part of the discussions on issues such as FGM, early marriage, and other harmful traditional practices. She is open that it was not easy for her to change her attitude to FGM, as it is a long-standing tradition in her community that she had always adhered to.
She explains that during the sessions, she found it difficult to abandon the practice, and that she would pose many questions around the topic, arguing with others.
“In every single session I was trying to find convincing evidence to make me abandon such tradition,” she explains, “What was really impressive is that in many of the activities and sessions I found answers to questions that I was thinking about even before asking.”
She added, “Such activities enlightened my mind and drove me to make the decision that I should play in a role in eliminating the practice from my village.”
Rokaya’s experience has made her a powerful advocate for the protection of women and girls. After taking part in several training sessions, which gave her the knowledge and skills to combat FGM, early marriage and other harmful traditional practices, she began conducting home visits to people in her community.
She says these visits are often successful because people are more likely to listen to someone from their own community, who comes from a similar background. She is unafraid to speak out, and recently spoke about why and how she abandoned her belief in FGM at a public event in her community, encouraging others to do the same.
Now a firm believer in the importance of girls’ roles in the community, she has started to encourage her daughter to take part in activities organised by Plan International.
NB – names have been changed to protect identities