On 6 February 2017, the world celebrated the International Day of Zero Tolerance of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). The theme of this year’s celebration was “Building a solid and interactive bridge between Africa and the world to accelerate ending FGM by 2030”, a United Nation’s goal in line with Egypt’s Sustainable Development Strategy: Egypt Vision 2030.
On the day, Egypt honoured the girls and women who were victims of this brutal practice which violates their bodies and their human rights. It was the suffering of these young victims that rang alarm bells in Egypt and led to calls for the State to take action against the rampant practice by drafting legislation and launching awareness campaigns in the media and educational system, as well as in religious and cultural institutions.
This year’s event comes as Egypt marks progress to bring an end to FGM, also called female circumcision, which is the ritual removal of some or all the external female genitalia.
In August 2016, the Egyptian House of Representatives passed an amendment to Article 242(Bis) of the Egyptian Penal Code to consider FGM a felony rather than a misdemeanour. The amended law stipulates that whoever commits this crime shall be sentenced to prison for a period not less than five years. The sentence is increased to 15 years of hard labour if the act of FGM leads to the death of the victim or to “permanent deformity”.
The amendment to the law met the demands of progressive public opinion, civil society, judicial and legislative bodies, and competent government establishments. It aimed, on one hand, to achieve a quantum leap in deterring the perpetrators and accomplices in such crimes; and on the other, to establish a new culture which admits that “female circumcision is a felony” and not just a socially-accepted custom.
The Public Prosecution Office played a pivotal role in supporting the cause of abolishing FGM and standing up for the rights of victims. The last case referred to them took place in 2016, when a girl by the name of Mayar lost her life after she and her twin sister were circumcised by a female doctor. For the first time, the prosecution referred four people to the criminal court: the doctor who performed the circumcision, the anaesthesiologist, the nurse and the girl’s mother, who is also a nurse. All were convicted by the court but, other than being fined, they were handed reduced or suspended sentences. The only one of the four to receive a five-year sentence was the nurse because she was sentenced in absentia.
Human rights groups considered the sentences disappointing. Mayar’s was not the first FGM case to be taken to court—there was another case in 2013 of a girl named Soheir—but it was before the law was changed to consider FGM a felony. Mayar’s was therefore the first case taken to court under the new law.
To enforce the measures to put an end to FGM and deter people from abetting or practising it, the Public Prosecution Office has issued a periodical to be distributed to all members of the Public Prosecution nationwide to inform them of the legal procedures to be followed in FGM cases.
Religion says: No
Islamic and Christian religious institutions have expressed their staunch opposition to FGM, a practice which violates a woman’s rights to dignity and good psychological and physical health. Dar al-Ifta al-Misriya, the Egyptian Islamic authority responsible for issuing fatwas (religious edicts), issued a fatwa in June 2016 supporting its previous fatwas that FGM was not in accordance with Islam, and called on Egyptians to abandon this harmful practice. Along the same lines, the Council of Senior Islamic Clerics of al-Azhar—an advisory board comprised of prominent al-Azhar clerics—headed by Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayeb approved the State decision to impose harsher penalties for FGM and consider it a crime against Egyptian girls.
The Egyptian Church, for its part, has always expressed its opposition to this brutal practice. This view stems from the Christian perspective of honouring the body of men and women against violence and abuse.
The year 2016 saw noticeable changes in the public and media support of the government’s efforts to abolish FGM. The Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU), in cooperation with the National Population Council (NPC) and the Ministry of Health and Population, dedicated free air time to broadcast the televised awareness campaign “Enough FGM” on the drama channels, which are most popular with the targeted segment of the population. Popular TV shows also discussed the issue with health and human rights specialists, and polled public opinion on the issue. The written and electronic media spared no effort in working to shape public opinion against FGM. Social dialogue reached its peak following the death of Mayar, with many demanding the House of Representatives to issue an urgent legislative amendment to increase the penalty against the practice of FGM.
Towards the end of 2016 and at the start of 2017, a national initiative under the name “Doctors against FGM” was launched by a group of prominent doctors with expertise in defending the ethics of the medical profession and advocating women’s rights to good physical and psychological health. The initiative aims to challenge the trend to ‘medicalise’ FGM—that is, to perform the procedure under medical supervision rather than by midwives, thereby giving it some sort of legitimacy. It also aims to activate a common medical, legal and ethical position against FGM by academic, public and private medical establishments and NGOs, and to call upon doctors to be active in their communities in advocating against this brutal crime. Another initiative was launched by the Supreme Council of Universities and the NPC’s National Program against FGM, which involved adding a chapter about the complications of FGM to the curricula of all medical schools.
Publications by the NPC’s National Programme for Family Empowerment (Combating FGM), the coordinator of the National Anti-FGM Strategy, show that the Egyptian people are responding well to the efforts exerted by the various State institutions. Recent statistics show a decline in the practice of FGM, especially among girls in the age group 15 to 17 years. They record a fall from 74 per cent in the 2008 Egypt Demographic and Health Survey to 61 per cent in the same survey of 2014.
NPC rapporteur Tarek Tawfik says the council is working hand in hand with government, civil, media and judicial partners to implement the strategy in cooperation with foreign organisations. These include the UN Development Programme, the UN Population Fund, the UN Women’s Guild, UNICEF, together with the support of the European Union and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency. Egypt is taking quantum leaps in building a bridge between Africa and the world to abolish the practice of FGM and achieve justice to millions of women and girls around the world, Dr Tawfik says.
6 March 2017