Focus on efforts to stop FGM

Eight-year-old, Samar (not her real name) suffers from regular bouts of psychological trauma every time she remembers the day she was circumcised in a village in the southern Egyptian governorate of Luxor.

The girl said that the practice, carried out without anaesthesia, caused her terrible physical pain, which words could not describe.

Originally from Aswan in southern Egypt, where female genital mutilation (FGM) is widely practiced, Samar's mother took her to Luxor against her father's will. He did not want his daughter to be circumcised.

"My daughter's life has been ruined," he said.

Samar said she bled for days.

"She was so passive and helpless as no one was able to stop this trauma," her father added sadly.

FGM is the partial or complete cutting of the female genitalia and it is usually performed on girls during adolescence. It is deeply rooted in the traditions of Egyptian society and its origins date back more than two thousand years.

Contrary to popular opinion, there is no doctrinal basis for the practice either in Islam or in Christian belief, but it is often wrongly perceived as being a religiously ordained rite.

One of the main reasons for the persistence of the practice is the apparent social significance for women: it is believed that it will moderate female sexuality, make a girl eligible for marriage and contribute to personal cleanliness.

The popular name for FGM is "girl's purification". Such nomenclature relates to the fact that the majority of Egyptian people think that FGM is the way to preserve a girl's virginity by controlling her sexual behaviour.

Today, doctors constitute FGMs most common practitioners (some 52 percent), followed by trained nurses or midwives (9 percent).

Traditional midwives in rural areas still carry out FGM without anaesthetic across the nation.

The women who perform such ad hoc operations are ironically known as "health barbers", as in many cases, the procedure is performed by untrained women using unsterilised equipment, such as razor blades or shards of glass.

The consequences can be severe psychological and physical injury. Infections are common and can lead to sterility, severe period pains and other complications during childbirth, as well as loss of pleasure during sex. In some extreme cases, a woman can bleed to death following the operation.

Widespread practice

Statistics on FGM in Egypt are shocking according to experts. The last Egyptian demographic health survey conducted in 2003, found that of married women aged between 15 and 49, some 97 percent had undergone FGM.

It is most common in rural areas of Upper Egypt but is present in urban areas as well.

Efforts to ban FGM

Fourteen countries in Africa have enacted laws making FGM illegal but there is no specific law in Egypt outlawing the procedure.

In 1996 the Egyptian Ministry of Health (MoH) issued a decree saying that FGM had been banned except for medical reasons but this has left a loophole in the law allowing it to continue. Observers say very few people are ever brought to justice.

This followed the International Conference for Population and Development in Cairo 1994 where the issue was addressed.

The blade used to carry out the FGM operation

However, the government has been more active on FGM since 2003, following a major conference attended by 28 African and Arab countries who discussed the issues.

Egypt’s first lady, Suzanne Mubarak, chaired the event and stressed the Cairo declaration raising awareness and the requirement for legal tools to prevent the practice of FGM.

The movement against FGM was born from the efforts of the national taskforce, founded by a number of advocates and NGOs but it was confined in scope.

The UN, along with the donor community and the NGOs network, over the last three years has recognised and supported the leading role of the National Council of Children and Motherhood (NCCM) in bringing a variety of activists into a national integrated campaign against FGM.

In 2003, in collaboration with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), a project began initially focused on 60 villages of Upper Egypt in the six governorates of Assuit, Aswan, Beni Suef, Minya, Quena and Sohag.

It is now expanding to cover an additional 60 villages in Lower Egypt for a five year period.

"We train them, give them access to the right information, empower them and help them to abandon the practice," programme officer for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Simona Galbiati said.

The project involves getting community leaders, both men and women, religious leaders and youth activists, to spread the message in sessions within villages.

"Social pressure does not allow them to stand up and say no but this project is working with the community as a whole, to create an environment that helps them to abandon the practice and creates a domino effect," added Galbiati.

Success story

One of the recent success stories has been in the southern governorate of Aswan where 20 community leaders including religious, political and women leaders signed a public declaration. They called for the prevention of FGM in Nagei Abou Shawareb in Benban village.

After two years of using various education and training approaches to reach out to families, community leaders, health workers and religious leaders, the community was able to overcome peer pressure and convince families not to circumcise their daughters.

Empowered by an extensive communication and advocacy campaign, Nagei Abou Shawareb of Benban village took a joint decision to say "NO to FGM."

Ongoing work to stop the practice

In the southern Minya governorate, some 300 km from Cairo, Iman Abdel-Zaher, NGO coordinator for NCCM has been at the forefront of changing opinions in the village of Zaafrana.

After nearly two years of awareness sessions in the area, she said some 30 percent of women continued to be mutilated, as opposed to a figure of more than 90 percent in the past.

"This has been one of the hardest places to change opinion because people were so set in their ways," she added.

FGM awareness session in Minya, Upper Egypt

Abdel-Zaher stressed the importance of targeting men in rural areas, as they will only marry women who have been circumcised.

At an awareness session aimed at males in Zaafrana, a group of 20 men gathered to hear the head of the local council and the local imam talk about FGM.

"I have not read anything in the Quran about mutilation and circumcision for women," Sheikh Hassan said in his address to the group.

The sheikh, dressed in a traditional white robe, proceeded to give examples of why FGM should not be practised.

"The prophet said if you have any doubts about certain rituals than you should not do this," he added. "God has created a person in a certain way and we should not tamper with this."

At the end of the session, a male participant stood up and pointed out that a lack of education in the village was to blame for the cruel practice.

In a nearby church in the village, the local priest holds a similar session but this time for women only. Once again, the aim is to spread the message that the practice has no place in religion, neither Islamic nor Christian.

"It is brutal and extremely painful for women," Isis Sharawi said.

New generation spreads the word

Other initiatives involve the younger generation with UN volunteers (UNVs) going out to try to change opinions.

"They want to convince girls and boys of their age that the practice is bad and should not be carried out and this is the way forward to change minds for the future," project coordinator for NCCM, Mona Hassan Amin said.

Dalia el-Motaz, is one of 22 UNVs working with the NCCM on the FGM project. She is coordinating the work of volunteers who spend their days talking to children aged between 12 and 21 in their home governorates about issues of adolescence, including the dangers of FGM.

"I was not circumcised and my mother and father trust me and that's why they did not have me circumcised," she said. “Many parents prefer FGM because they fear that the girl may stray from her purity due to bad company. But I believe it is about how you are brought up," she stressed.

"We use ourselves as good examples in villages and show that you don't need to be circumcised to prove you are pure," she added.

Of the 22 UNVs, who also target schools and universities, six are male.

"There are many health risks and complications with FGM and we have seen this so many times. We have to bring some women to Cairo for treatment due to infections and discomfort experienced by girls," Amin said. "It is a type of torture."

UNDP, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) all support the NCCM.

UNICEF is complementing the FGM project with a series of community-based initiatives.

"We use what are called positive deviants, who are those from the communities that stood against this practice to spread the message.

This could be a girl who has been circumcised or one who hasn't, but are deeply committed against the practice that could talk about the disadvantages," assistant protection officer, Yuko Osawa said.

"We are directly targeting families and are working on monitoring and evaluating to make sure that the message gets through and translates into action, but it takes time," she added.