Female genital mutilation has impacted at least 200 million women and girls worldwide, though the exact number is unknown. The practice is most common in western, central and northern Africa, though it also occurs in a few countries in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Egypt has one of the highest rates of female genital mutilation in the world, with 87 percent of women between the ages of 15 and 49 having undergone the procedure as of 2016. Some progress has been made over the past few decades, thanks to efforts by the Egyptian government and international organizations, but the cultural preference for female genital mutilation in Egypt prevails, and there is much work that needs to be done.
Egypt has the fourth highest rate of female genital mutilation, tied with Sudan. Only Somalia, Guinea and Djibouti are higher, all with at least 90 percent of women between the ages of 15 and 49 having undergone female genital mutilation. In Somalia, the procedure is nearly universal, at 98 percent.
According to the World Health Organization, there are four main types of female genital mutilation, otherwise known as FGM. These types vary based on what parts of the female genitalia are removed or altered. In Egypt, the most common procedure is Type 1, which includes the partial or full removal of the clitoris.
FGM is condemned internationally for a number of reasons. It has no health benefits, can lead to infections, severe bleeding, infertility and other serious medical problems, is a violation of the rights of women and can result in psychological trauma.
Prevailing Cultural Beliefs
Female genital mutilation in Egypt was banned in 2008 and criminalized in 2016; however, these laws have had little impact on the prevalence of the practice. FGM is seen as an important rite of passage within many communities. It’s viewed as a way to promote female chastity and purity, and many view it as essential for a young woman to get married. According to some Egyptian villagers, husbands will require their brides to undergo the procedure before the wedding ceremony.
It is not only men, however, who support the procedure. While opinions about FGM vary among women, many women do adhere to this cultural tradition and support it being done to their children and grandchildren. According to UNICEF data, only 38 percent of Egyptian women who know about FGM think the practice should end. Egyptian woman Mona Mohamed remembers being tied down to get the procedure when she was ten, her mother and grandmother each holding one of her arms.
In 2000, for married women, the rate of female genital mutilation in Egypt was 97 percent. Between then and 2014, there was little progress, as the 2014 health survey found that 92 percent of women between the ages of 15 and 49 had gone through FGM. There has been more significant progress between 2014 and 2018, however, as the rate has been reduced to 87 percent.
While this represents a higher rate of reduction, if progress continues at this rate, it will take more than 34 years to end the practice entirely. Success in ending FGM relies on working at a community level to change cultural perceptions.
Efforts by International Organizations
In 2008, UNICEF and UNFPA created a joint program targeting FGM in the countries where it is the most prevalent. Their program focuses on law reform, research, training medical personnel and fieldworkers, and engaging directly with religious leaders and local communities.
Both Muslim and Christian communities are known to support female genital mutilation in Egypt, so the program works with leaders from both religions to educate them on the realities of FGM. If religious leaders come to agree with international views on FGM, the program then provides resources to help them spread this knowledge in their communities through sermons and family counseling.
To better reach girls and women, the program also launched a national television campaign. By far their most innovative solution for community outreach, however, is an interactive street theatre show on female genital mutilation. The play provides a depiction of FGM and its impact on girls, and afterward, the audience is encouraged to be involved in an open community discussion.
Despite being a culturally-driven practice, FGM is often performed by licensed doctors. The 2014 health survey found that 72 percent of FGM procedures in Egypt was done by a doctor. As a result, it is important to also focus efforts on medical professionals. Beginning in 2013, UNFPA held workshops for the medical staff at hospitals to disseminate accurate knowledge about FGM and provide doctors and nurses with the resources they need to counsel their patients and argue against FGM.
Additionally, UNFPA is working on a legal front to address the lack of legal repercussions for those who perform FGM, in spite of it being criminalized. This involves working with law enforcement personnel and prosecutors to ensure that individuals aren’t able to exploit legal loopholes to avoid conviction.
Hopefully, the efforts of UNFPA, UNICEF and other international and regional partners will continue to have an impact on the prevalence of female genital mutilation in Egypt, protecting the human rights of thousands of women and girls.
– Sara Olk