Cairo, Egypt (openDemocracy) – Despite the popular euphemism “female circumcision”, female genital mutilation (FGM) is widely acknowledged as being an extremely harmful—and sometimes life threatening—practice. But because of social, cultural and religious reasons, the challenges to ending this custom are significant. According to WHO and UNICEF respectively, around 125 million girls worldwide have undergone the practice, with an estimated 30 million girls at risk of FGM in the next decade.
Currently, the proposed new UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) include a target focusing on the total elimination of FGM by 2030. Many agencies see this as an achievable target given the growing knowledge of best practices and effective versus non-effective strategies. A recent article on openGlobalRights pointed to several key strategies, including building civil society support, enforcing anti-FGM legislation, involving health workers, and more, that if implemented, could make the goal attainable. However, most of the efforts in Egypt over the period of the last 20 years have used these strategies, but with rather modest results.
Advocacy to end FGM in Egypt started early in the 1970s and were intensified after the UN’s International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in 1996. In the beginning, most of these activities addressed FGM from a health perspective rather than a rights perspective. This resulted in a medicalization of the practice, but not a decrease in its prevalence. Currently, medical doctors perform more than 70% of FGM cases in Egypt (despite it being illegal).
Anti-FGM activities received more visibility and funding in Egypt when FGM became a priority issue on the agenda of the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM). In 2003, a joint partnership between NCCM, national NGOs, different UN agencies and other donors was established with the objective of ending FGM in Egypt. As a result, a national program entitled “FGM-Free Village Model” was designed to empower girls and families to make informed decisions against FGM. The program was implemented in 60 villages in six governorates in the first phase of implementation, and was increased to 120 villages in the second phase to cover 20 out of 27 governorates.
A girl in rural Egypt goes to retrieve water.
Another nationwide program, “the UNFPA-UNICEF joint program on FGM”, was launched in 2008 and ran extensively for seven years promoting strategic approaches to end FGM. At the policy level, the Egyptian Ministry of Health in 2007 issued a ministerial decree banning health professionals from performing FGM. This was followed in 2008 by changes in the penal code to criminalize FGM. Furthermore, Dar al-Iftaa, the official entity issuing religious opinions, ruled that the practice is “un-Islamic”.
The prevalence of the practice is simply not dropping fast enough. Yet, these programs have had a limited impact. Recent data released by the Egyptian Demographic and Health Survey (EDHS 2014) in May 2015, as well as data from the June 2015 Young People Survey in Egypt (SYPE), do not support the claim that FGM can be eliminated by 2030. The prevalence of the practice is simply not dropping fast enough.
In 2014, the EDHS data reported the prevalence of FGM among ever-married women between the ages 15-45 to be 92.3% with a drop of 4.7% over the past 20 years. The percentage of daughters aged 0-19 reported by their mother to be currently circumcised was 21.4% in 2014, dropping 6% over a period of ten years. Furthermore, 34.9 % of mothers intended to circumcise their girls in the future; dropping only 2.7% over a period of 20 years. The 2014 SYPE reported that 77.9% of youth between the ages of 15-29 reported themselves to be circumcised, dropping 7% over a period of five years. An alarming finding in the 2014 SYPE was that 70.7% of young female and 68.6 % of young male respondents intended to circumcise their future daughter(s).
Most of the programs on FGM during the past 12 years have been led by the government, and with two main messages: FGM is not part of the Islamic or Christian religious teachings; and FGM has negative health consequences. Most of these programs avoid addressing the issue from the perspective of women’s sexual rights and freedoms. Yet, without a full exploration of the relationship between sexual norms and FGM in Egypt, it will be difficult—if not impossible—to totally eliminate the practice. Female genital mutilation is a form of violence against women. It is used to exercise control over women’s bodies and maintain the current patriarchal system. The reasons for the continuation of FGM might be interpreted as cultural, social or even religious but, at the core of the matter, it is fundamentally an issue of control. Women’s sexuality is perceived as something that needs to be guided and restrained for the sake of society, and the belief in this practice is so entrenched, that even criminalizing it doesn’t seem to be a deterrent to future generations.
Although many studies point at women as the main decision makers when it comes to FGM, the few studies that investigated the role of men found that men’s perceptions of their roles within the family are strongly linked to the continuance of FGM. A study conducted in 2010 in Egypt revealed that men stressed the concept of “quama” in Arabic, which can be translated as “responsibility”, “superiority” and “protection”. Men feel responsible for protecting their daughters and wives, and FGM is seen as an important aid in this role. The majority of men interviewed in this study believed that uncut women are “oversexed” and sexually demanding, which they believe can lead to extra-marital relationships.
Programs and community interventions need to work on breaking this perception and changing the strong association between norms of masculinity, power, sexual control and FGM. In this regard, men must be a primary target group in any activities undertaken. Even though women may support FGM, it is really the opinion of men and their position of power that perpetuate it. Younger generations of men will repeat what their fathers have done, unless the root of this issue is addressed in advocacy programs. Until the problem is approached from this angle, we will never see the end of this damaging practice.
Written byfor openDemocracy.