The scared but determined voice of a girl sounded across the Child Helpline (16000) crying for help. She gave her name and said she was 13 years old, from a village in Kafr al-Sheikh in the northwest Nile Delta. She said she had overheard her mother and aunt talking about having her circumcised. Dreading the operation, and having heard on radio how hazardous and harmful it was, she decided to call the helpline which was being repeatedly advertised by the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM). The advertisement claimed the NCCM would offer advice, and would also come to the rescue of would-be victims of female circumcision if needs be.
Experts delegated by the NCCM did come to the girl’s rescue. They talked to her parents about the physical, psychological, and medical hazards of the operation. They explained that, contrary to widespread folk concepts, female circumcision, also known as female genital mutilation (FGM) had nothing at all to do with promoting chastity. Finally, they managed to persuade them to renounce the idea, and promised the girl they would follow up with her.
The story of the Kafr al-Sheikh teenager was proudly cited before the media by Azza al-Ashmawy, Secretary-General of NCCM, to demonstrate that the awareness and advertising campaigns spearheaded by the National Committee for Eradication of Female Genital Mutilation (NCEFGM) in Egypt had borne fruit. The Committee is formed jointly by the NCCM and Egypt’s National Council for Women (NCW).
Earlier this month saw Maya Morsy, President of the NCW, talk about Egypt’s efforts to eradicate FGM in a gathering of representatives of the NCEFGM, and members of the UNFPA-UNICEF joint programme on FGM. Dr Morsy reviewed the NCEFGM efforts, explaining how closely the Committee works with the State. She highlighted the State’s ongoing commitment towards eliminating FGM in Egypt. She also referred to the recent regional conference on child marriage and FGM, organised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the NCW and the NCCM, in cooperation with the African Union and European Union, and hosted by Egypt under the auspices of President Sisi. Over the course of two days last June, the conference discussed African challenges and efforts to counter FGM and child marriage.
Dr Morsy told the UNFPA-UNICEF committee about the National Strategy to Empower Egyptian Women 2030, prepared by the NCW and ratified by President Sisi as a plan of action in accordance with Egypt’s Vision 2030. The Strategy includes all provisions concerned with women’s rights in general, and the issue of FGM in specific.
The 2008 Child Law includes an amendment that was added to the Penal Law, explicitly criminalising female circumcision. In 2016 the law was again amended to impose harsher penalties on all involved in inflicting FGM, including the parents of a victim.
“We should all take pride in what has been realised in this field in Egypt so far,” said Aleksandar Sasha Bodiroza, UNFPA (United Nations Fund for Population Activities) representative in Egypt. He commended the efforts of the NCEFGM in raising awareness of the harms of FGM.
For his part, Bruno Maes, UNICEF representative in Egypt, praised the NCEFGM as “a strong coalition against FGM in Egypt”, and hailed the dedicated commitment of the Egyptian government towards eradicating the practice.
It has been four months now since the NCEFGM went into operation. The ‘dream team’ was born of diligent collaboration by the NCCM and NCW. It was launched last May in a meeting jointly chaired by Dr Ashmawy of and Dr Morsy. The then nascent team was assigned by the State with well-defined responsibilities and tasks.
Both the NCCM and NCW have joined efforts to put a national plan for the work of the national committee, within a carefully determined timeframe and budget. The plan, Dr Ashmawy explained during the committee’s first meeting, focuses on the highest risk locations in Egypt. It is quantified and subject to continual follow up, and takes into consideration previous experiences, success and challenges.
The committee includes among its members scores of seasoned experts and officials involved in reducing the incidence of FGM in Egypt. Among them are representatives of the ministries of Interior, Social Solidarity, Health and Housing, Education, Youth and Sports, Culture, Endowments, Justice, and Investment and International Cooperation. Al-Azhar and the Egyptian Churches are also represented in the committee, as are the National Council for Population, the Public Prosecution, the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics, and the National Information Authority. Civil society organisations and the General Union of NGOs are also represented in the committee. The European Union, UNICEF Egypt, Plan International, Save the Children, the UN Population Fund and the United Nations Development Program all expressed their endorsement of the new committee by sending representatives to the launching event.
The NCEFGM lost no time in setting out to work. On 14 June, National Anti-FGM Day, it launched “Protect her Against FGM” awareness campaign. Dr Morsy said the campaign started off by advertising messages that explained that FGM was a crime according to religion, health and law; and highlighted the hazards of the practice. The advertisements ran on 18 radio channels over a full month. Launched by the NCCM in 2005, the Child Helpline (16000) was advertised to receive calls for help in case of FGM incidents.
From 13 June till 1 August, the campaign reached more than 3 million beneficiaries—men, women and children—across Egypt, through 276 awareness activities. During that period, Dr Ashmawy said, the Child Helpline received 1,473 calls from 25 governorates all over Egypt. She said that 6 per cent of the calls came from girls, 20 per cent from mothers, 46 per cent from fathers, and 20 per cent from sporadic individuals.
The lion’s share of calls, 13.7 per cent, came from Cairo, with Giza a close second at 11.5 per cent. Many of the callers, Dr Ashmawy noted, inquired about the physical and psychological harms of FGM, as well the opinion of religion on the practice.
According to Dr Ashmawy, the Child Helpline is the only national means to protect children, and was stipulated by the Child Law. It receives complaints 24/7, and directly deals with them. In case a FGM crime had already been committed, the NCCM takes the necessary legal action against the doctors and other parties involved. In case of potential FGM cases, the helpline team contacts child protection commissions and civil society partners for them to deal with the matter by meeting the parents of the potential victim, explaining the hazards of the operation, and taking legal pledges from them not to circumcise their daughters. The NCCM follows up upon the cases.
Dr Ashmawy stressed that all awareness initiatives must provide their target audience with logical consistent information that would stimulate positive debate, in order to provide local communities with a base of correct solid information that would help them renounce FGM. She said men were among the main audience targeted for behavioural change, basing on a correct understanding of the relationship between spouses versus common concepts regarding marital relations.
The role of the media in raising awareness of the harms of FGM and the efforts to combat it cannot be overstated, NCW’s Dr Morsy stressed, noting that society today feeds on the media for information. Accordingly, she said, it was important for the NCEFGM to unify its address. The Committee thus compiled a manual that included knowledgeable Q & As on FGM, from a rights and medical perspective. The manual was compiled in cooperation with UNICEF and UNPFA. Its digital version was posted on the NCCM and NCW’s social media pages, and has been seen by more than 1 million viewers, and counting, Dr Ashmawy said.
The committee is also closely working with its international partners. According to Ibrahim Laafia, Head of Cooperation at the EU Delegation, the EU was willing to provide all support needed to the NCEFGM. He reminded that the EU has been working for years in Egypt on the protection of women and children, also issues concerning the empowerment of women and combatting violence against women and girls.
Knocking on doors
The NCEFGM also adopted a three-day “door-knocking” campaign, with the help of ‘rural pioneer’ women who would visit families and talk to them candidly on FGM. According to Dr Morsy, that was by far the most effective communication and persuasion tool employed.
Local representatives of the Ministry of Endowments and the Egyptian Church were also involved in the awareness campaign which worked to communicate to the public the opinion of religion, medicine and law on FGM.
Prior to the campaign, Dr Morsy said, 1,663 rural local women over Egypt were given training to boost their knowledge on all points related to FGM, and to maximise their effectiveness on how to address the public on the issue.
Encouraging figures, but still not enough
Egypt’s efforts at combatting FGM, however, go far earlier than 2019 when the NCEFGM was formed.
Dr Ashmawy says the NCCM had since 2000 assiduously addressed the issue of female circumcision, with the support of development partners, EU, UN organisations, civil society, al-Azhar, the Coptic Church and local figures. She said that this cooperation had generated a societal movement against FGM, leading to a significant reduction in the practice: the rate of female circumcision among girls aged from new-born to 17 dropped from 28 per cent in 2005 to 18 per cent in 2014. For ages between 15 and 49, the rate was 67.5 per cent in 2005 and dropped to 58 per cent in 2014.
“These rates are still high,” Dr Ashmawy remarked, “and that’s why all parties concerned must coordinate their efforts in order to eradicate FGM which, deplorably, is still practised day in day out.” She said that the legislation and national policies are not enough to stop the longstanding practice; the decision to abandon it must be voluntary, motivated and empowered by the community.
It is impossible to talk about combatting FGM in Egypt without recalling the outstanding achievements on that front made by Moushira Khattab. In fact, a few weeks after the NCEFGM was launched, Moushira Khattab paid a visit to the NCW where she was received by Dr Morsy and Dr Ashmawy. Dr Khattab praised the partnership between the two councils, the NCW and NCCM, stressing that the NCEFGM initiative was a comprehensive one bound to bring about significant benefits.
Dr Khattab who holds a PhD on the rights of the child from Cairo University, served as Secretary-General of the NCCM from 1999 to 2010, during which period she boldly and strongly dared broach the file of FGM, an issue which had been for decades on end hushed over. Eradication of the deeply entrenched social tradition of FGM took top place on her NCCM agenda. She cooperated with universities, research centres and education institutions to prove that FGM was a practice that worked irreparable damage, physically and emotionally, to women. Her assiduous efforts bore fruit; in 2008 the practice was officially declared a crime by the Egyptian Criminal Law.
Dr Khattab’s efforts to combat FGM did not stop at the local level, she called for the establishment of an international network against FGM in cooperation with UNDP, UNICEF and African and Italian NGOs.
Another earlier pioneer of combatting FGM, in fact the first to speak up about the practice, was Mary Asaad (1922 – 2018).
Ms Asaad was a leading Egyptian figure in anthropological studies and social sciences, and an iconic defender of women’s rights. She wrote and reported on female circumcision in Egypt and North Africa as far back as the 1970s, drawing attention to a taboo topic that had never been studied or discussed openly. She published her pioneering study that was the first of its kind on female circumcision in Egypt and Africa in 1970, and her study became the basis for the work of the organising committee of the UN International Conference for Population and Development in 1994. Ms Asaad also managed a teamwork mission to battle the tradition of FGM. She declined appointment to official posts, but exerted admirable effort to help the government fight FGM in Egypt.
Egypt has partaken in international endeavours that have discussed FGM. Dr Ashmawy named Mexico’s World Women’s Congress, 1975; Peking’s Congress, 1995; and the Ouagadougou Declaration, 2018, in which Egypt had participated in a draft to urge African countries to take urgent measures to eradicate FGM which, in some African countries, is practised under medical umbrellas.
Dr Ashmawy said that the NCEFGM is striving to comply with the aims of sustainable development Egypt aspires for by 2030. FGM hinders progress, she said, instils discrimination against females and creates a vicious circle of physical, psychological and social mal-treatment.
“The well-being of our girls is on top of Egypt’s agenda,” Dr Ashmawy pointed out, stressing that Egypt’s girls are the key factor for a blossoming Egyptian future for generations to come.