Female genital mutilation: When a harmful traditional practice becomes a crime

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An artistic representation of FGM in Egypt. © UNDP Egypt

28 Jul 2014 by Ignacio Artaza, UNDP Country Director, Egypt

Recently I visited Fayoum and Aswan, Egypt, and met with women, men and girls who are actively advocating against female genital mutilation (FGM). A father told me that when he understood that FGM had no religious basis, and was an inherited traditional habit, he actively started advocating against it.

A female community activist I spoke to explained that until recently she had to meet families in secret to share her message against FGM, whereas now she is invited to speak openly.

As evidenced by these testimonies, once people change their perceptions on FGM, they become staunch advocates against this harmful practice.

The National Anti-FGM Day, on June 14th, was established in honor of 12-year-old Bodour Shaker, who died on the same date in 2007. In June 2013, 13-year-old Soheir El Batea suffered the same fate. As heartbreaking as these two tragedies are, their untimely deaths were not in vain. As a result of public mobilization, the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) was criminalized in 2008 and the first case is currently under prosecution.

Data from the Demographic and Health Survey suggests that some improvements occurred over the last two decades. In 2008, among women aged 15-17, the FGM/Cutting prevalence rate was 74 percent compared to a prevalence of 95 percent among women aged 30-34. However, 72 percent of the practice is conducted by medical doctors, which continues to be a main concern.

FGM has been a taboo for many years in Egypt. The joint efforts of community activists, authorities, development agencies and media are gradually making a difference to phase out this traditional harmful practice. In 2013, with our support, a five-year national strategy for FGM abandonment and family empowerment was developed, in partnership with local authorities, civil society organizations and several UN agencies. The initiative is implemented with generous contributions from the European Union, the Governments of Sweden, of the Netherlands and of Germany.

While prevalence rates remain high, namely among older women, the response of younger girls and mothers of new generations to FGM abandonment campaigns is much higher.

But changing harmful customs is a long-term goal that involves generations. Promoting human rights and overcoming one of the worst forms of discrimination against girls and women is a developmental issue that concerns all Egyptians, not just the victims of abuse.

This is a task that we must tackle together: Families, civil society, government, development agencies and media.