Days after Egypt’s parliament passed harsh penalties for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in August 2016, Egyptian parliament member Elhamy Agina stated “it is better for women to undergo the brutal practice to ‘reduce a woman’s sexual appetite.’’
He added that by doing so, women would “stand by their men” and “life would proceed smoothly.” Sadly, Agina’s opinions are not isolated in Egypt. In 2014, a survey conducted by the Egyptian Ministry of Health and Population found that 92 percent of currently and formerly married women between the ages of 15 and 49 had undergone FGM. The procedure involves the partial or total removal of female genitalia.
The new amendments to the Egyptian Penal Code establish prison terms of five to seven years for those who carry out FGM, fifteen years if the routine causes permanent disability or death, and one to three years to anyone who escorts a girl to undergo the procedure.
Egypt criminalized the practice in 2008, prohibiting the operation in governmental and nongovernmental hospitals. However, since the criminalization, Egypt has only seen two FGM-related lawsuits. The first case was in June 2013, when a public prosecutor referred an FGM case to an Egyptian court. The case followed the death of thirteen-year-old Suhair al-Bataa, who died during an FGM procedure performed by Dr. Raslan Fadl. Though initially acquitted, Dr. Fadl was later sentenced to two years in prison, and his practice was shut down. However, he only served three months, after Suhair’s family accepted a financial settlement. Suhair’s father was also sentenced to three months’ imprisonment for forcing his daughter to undergo the procedure.
According to the Demographic and Heath Survey “Egypt 2014,” the number of mutilated females aged 15-17 dropped from 74 percent in 2008 to 61 percent in 2014. Despite this progress, the World Health Organization states that Egypt has some of the highest rates of FGM. Sixty-one percent is a high rate, considering domestic and international law prohibit the practice. Mona Ezzat, head of the Women and Work Program at Egyptian human rights group New Woman Foundation, told Al-Monitor,
FGM is associated with the prevailing customs, traditions, and culture in society. It is practiced in [Egypt] because parents are still totally convinced of its viability. Thus, forcing society to relinquish this tradition should not be done through laws alone…To change this attitude…requires changing the culture, religious rhetoric and school curricula, in addition to rigorously applying the law.
In addition to Egyptian domestic law, there are many sources of international law that address FGM, including the Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women. According to the CEDAW, Egypt, in addition to creating laws, must take appropriate measures to modify social and cultural practices that are “based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes”. The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women addresses FGM directly, stating, “Violence against women shall be understood to encompass… physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring in the family, including…female genital mutilation and other traditional practices harmful to women.” It also declares “States should condemn violence against women and should not invoke any custom, tradition or religious consideration to avoid their obligations with respect to its elimination.”
FGM has been practiced in Egypt since the Pharaonic period. Muslims and Christians practice it, and leaders from both religions have condemned the practice. This is not a religious problem; it is a cultural one and it is ingrained in society. Although Egypt has made great strides to end FGM, international law requires more. Egypt should better educate women and men on the adverse affects of FGM. In 2010, UNICEF recommended that preventive and protective measures be prioritized. Egypt should place higher penalties on medical professionals performing FGM. Even after the criminalization of FGM, a 2014 survey found that in 82 percent of cases, trained medical personnel performed the practice. Egypt also needs to look to religious leaders and schools to help educate their citizens. Even though the problem of FGM is not a religious one, religion may help hinder the practice FGM. Despite FGM being condemned by Christianity and Islam, many practice FGM thinking they are adhering to an accepted religious practice.
The law can only go so far in deterring this practice. The National FGM Abandonment Strategy launched by Egypt in June 2015 and the media awareness campaign “Enough FGM” launched in May 2015 are steps in the right direction. Informative tactics such as these will complement the law and hopefully eradicate the practice.