Last month (August 2016) saw Egypt’s parliament introduce tougher penalties for practitioners of female genital mutilation (FGM). The House of Representatives passed a new law that defines the crime of female circumcision as a felony instead of the previous law’s misdemeanour. Perpetrators will now be punished with up to seven years’ imprisonment for performing the procedure, and up to 15 years if a child dies as a result.
FGM, also known as female circumcision, has been rampant in Egypt for millennia. Seen as a way to guard the chastity of women—the very name in Arabic translates literally as “purity”—it has led to countless Egyptian girls and women suffering at length on account of the procedure which, until recent times, was performed by a midwife or health barber. It was not uncommon for girls to lose their lives on account of FGM operations gone awry. However, these deaths were seen as the unfortunate consequences of a universally-acknowledged and necessary procedure, and news of the deaths remained confined to local communities.
Not anymore. Modern-day media informed Egyptians of the death of, among several others, 12-year-old Bodour in 2008, 13-year-old Soheir in 2013, and 17-year-old Mayar and 14-year-old Hagar in 2016. All died after suffering complications from FGM operations performed by doctors not by less qualified medical staff. The news held Egypt in shock and forcefully brought to the fore the need to take action against FGM.
This was not the first time Egypt debated FGM. Enlightened thinking, which has dominated the scene increasingly in Egypt since the late 19th century, has made many Egyptians aware of the serious short- and long-term hazards of this pointless operation. While the well-educated, progressive-minded took a stance against it, it has been an uphill battle to persuade the majority of Egyptians who still believe FGM is necessary or who cannot face the social censure if they refrained from circumcising their daughters.
In 2008 Egypt passed a law criminalising FGM. The law came under fire from Islamists and conservatives who did everything in their power to stem the tide of social change. Yet some change did take place: whereas 90 per cent of Egyptian women above 60 years old had undergone FGM, 80 per cent of those above 45 years old and 74 per cent of those between 20 and 45 were circumcised, showing a steady fall. According to UNICEF, Egypt ranks among the countries most successful in reducing FGM rates. The reduced FGM figures came in response to vigorous campaigns during the last three decades by government and non-governmental women’s organisations against the practice. Even so, Egypt has a long way to go before it can claim to be FGM-free.
The target is surely attainable. In 2007, the village of Deir al-Barsha in Minya, some 250kms south of Cairo, declared it had totally banned FGM. The village is 100 per cent Coptic, and the movement to ban FGM was sponsored by the Church which succeeded in persuading the villagers that female circumcision was no religious requisite and was in fact a disfigurement of the body created in perfection by God. Thus persuaded, the villagers signed a social pact to the effect that whoever persisted in circumcising a daughter was contradicting the ethics of the community. This sealed the ban, since it put an end to social censure against non-circumcised females. A year later three other Minya villages followed in the same footsteps: Qolusna, al-Jazayer, and al-Nassriya; and another two followed suit in 2015: Abu-Ghreir and Bani Ghani. Also in 2008, the three villages of Sandabees, al-Nawwara, and al-Khusous in the east Delta province of Qayoubiya, north Cairo announced that they had banned FGM. Egypt’s southernmost province, Aswan, boast 16 FGM-free villages.
Violation of rights
Female genital mutilation (FGM) is recognised internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women. According to the United Nations, it reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women. It is nearly always carried out on minors and is a violation of the rights of children. The practice also violates a person’s rights to health, security and physical integrity, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to life should the procedure prove fatal.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines FGM as the ritual removal of some or all of the external female genitalia, and marks the date 6 February as International Day on Zero Tolerance for FGM.
Watani met Vivian Fouad, councillor at the State-run National Population Council (NPC), and head of the Health Ministry’s national programme to combat FGM, to discuss the new law that enforces stiffer penalties for doctors and medical staff performing FGM. The talk focused on the strategy launched by the NPC to pass the law and to confront the socially-entrenched tradition of circumcising girls.
Shall we begin by asking why there was a need for a new law to battle FGM?
Eight years after the law to criminalise the practice was passed, and despite the crime being widespread in Egypt, only two rulings have been handed down. The first conviction was upheld last year by the Court of Appeals in Mansoura in the case of Soheir al-Bateie, who lost her life following FGM procedure in June 2013. In this case the doctor was sentenced to two years while the girl’s father was sentenced to six months. The second ruling was issued by South Cairo Court in regard to a girl named Hagar, whose father was sentenced only to a fine of EGP1,000.
The National FGM Abandonment Strategy, launched last year, played a vital role in revealing the implications of such cases and forcing investigations to reopen.
The penalty set by the 2008 law against FGM, which the law defined as a misdemeanour, did not fit the crime committed against girls who had no say about what they were subjected to. The penalty was a mere fine of not less than EGP1,000 and not more than EGP5,000, and / or prison for at least three months and not more than two years. Moreover, the law did not punish attempts to force a girl to undergo FGM, which leads to the crime being committed without any action being taken to prevent it.
We needed not only to increase the punishment, but rather to amend the law, and if the practice resulted in death the penalty should be 15 years in prison, since the crime is equivalent to ‘beating to death with premeditation’. This is to bring justice for the dead girl, especially in such cases as when there is no one else to do so. Parents are usually complicit in the crime.
It was obvious that there was confusion and unease about the new law among MPs. MP Ahmed al-Tahawi, who is a medical doctor and a member of the parliamentary health commission, said that it was wrong to ban FGM since it was a medical and religious necessity that just needed to be performed in the right way. He was expressing a widely held view in Egypt. Did this dissuade or discourage you?
No, it did not. At a hearing held by the parliamentary health and population committee, a delegation from the NPC led by Dr Tarek Tawfik, Dr Mona Amin and me, Dr Saad Eddin Hilaly, a professor of fiqh(Islamic jurisdiction) at the topmost Islamic authority and university, al-Azhar, reviewed the issue from an Islamic perspective and explained that the words ‘female circumcision’ were not mentioned in any of the texts of the Qur’an or Hadith (Sayings of the Prophet Muhammad). The practice, however, is considered one of many old customs that oppress women. Dr Hilaly supported our demand to toughen the penalty for the FGM crime, not only in case of practitioners of female circumcision but also for whomever calls for or propagates the issue through the media.
At the same hearing, a female MP said that 3 per cent of girls needed to be circumcised. How did you respond?
In my capacity as head of a programme that battles the perpetration of false information promoting FGM, I said that this was scientifically untrue, especially that the MP concerned admitted she took her references and information from the Internet, which is not a reliable source. There have been experienced professors and doctors for more than seven decades who have not advocated a need for a girl’s circumcision, unless there are malformations or birth defects which are normally clearly identified when found.
It reminds me of the Chinese, who used to believethat girls should have their feet bound so they were tiny, which was thought to be attractive.
I just want to emphasise that circumcision is not a medical surgery, but a crime that is not listed or mentioned in medicine or religious books. It is a practice that removes a part of the girls’ body without a necessary complaint; just for cultural or social purposes.
You mentioned that the NPC has an anti-FGM national strategy in place. Will you tell us more about its axes and the tips to achieve its goals?
Through the national strategy which we launched last year we are targeting an ambitious plan to reduce female genital mutilation by 10 to 15 per cent over the next five years by mobilising doctors and judges against the practice.
There is no doubt that Egypt has already achieved progress since 2008, when the rate of girls undergoing circumcision was 74 per cent; the figure was recorded at 61 per cent in 2014. In a recent report UNICEF listed three countries, including Egypt, that had achieved good results with decreasing FGM. We aspire to continue this progress and achieve 50 per cent or even less.
Our strategy is divided into three axes. The first is to apply the law against doctors and perpetrators of the crime, since 80 per cent of FGM procedures are now performed by doctors. For its part, the Ministry of Health and the Doctors’ Syndicate should both issue a number of clear decisions and penalties against those doctors who perform female circumcision.
What about the second axis?
The second axis is awareness through education plus cultural and social change. Education reaches every member of the family and works wonders. But it is especially important to start with enlightening medical students and warning them that female circumcision is a form of violence against women that has long-term consequences.
Control and monitoring by the Doctors’ Syndicate comes next, especially concerning the professional ethics that should be taken into consideration when opening clinics or hospitals. Strict penalties should be applied to whomever violates the law
Cultural change is a challenge on its own. How would you confront such a challenge?
The great challenge we are facing is development, which invariably leads to better education and a healthy cultural and social climate. This strongly affects and determines public stances regarding the abandonment of harmful social customs.
For the time being, however, we face an uphill battle. Too many doctors are still willing to take money from families. This makes good income for doctors, and some doctors come from social and cultural backgrounds that support FGM. If doctors, judges, prosecutors and teachers support FGM, how are we going to convince poorer women not to do it? This is why we are focusing on the doctors and professionals.
The third axis is follow up and evaluation, through which a health and population survey is conducted every five years. Through these surveys we can determine how much progress we have achieved in Egypt by looking at the rate of circumcision in the age range of 15 to 45 years. These surveys are internationally recognised.
Follow-ups are done through our work in 120 villages nationwide. We publish regular reports, as well as media reports by which we gather information about trends in public opinion.
Following the Mayar incident, a number of girls under 20 registered their rejection of female circumcision.
Before the strategy was launched last year, there was a national plan. What is the difference between that and the new law?
The national plan that was in place before the recent strategy relied on ministries, associations and councils each working separately. This did not achieve fruitful results, so the new strategy is central and obligates all ministries and organisations to work together.
Furthermore, the role played by education should not be restricted to local groups in towns and villages, but should extend to all sectors. We need the message to be conveyed to every school, every church and every mosque, and accordingly to every house.
What happens after this strategy? What kind of results can we expect?
Both the people and the media should not expect any results for the next five years, which is our target for reaching 50 per cent. The phenomenon of FGM in Egypt may take generations to absolutely disappear.
Finally, I would like to say: If you put the right signs along the road, you will definitely arrive no matter the obstacles on the way. In our case of aiming at an FGM-free Egypt, our path requires the vigilant attendance of every element in our community. We hope our new strategy succeeds in achieving this.
14 September 2016