“It is a day I don’t want to remember. Whenever it comes to my mind, it sends shivers down my spine,” said Aya Abdel Aati, aged 17, recalling the painful experience of her circumcision at the age of 12. She says she bled for several days.
Despite efforts by the authorities, NGOs, and international agencies to eliminate Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C), the practice is still widespread in Egypt and deeply rooted in the minds of the people, according to a study funded by World Health Organization (WHO) entitled Investigating Women’s Sexuality in Relation to Female Genital Mutilation in Egypt.
“The main reason we found for the continuation of the practice is a drive to control a woman’s sexuality before marriage as a means of ensuring her virginity and therefore her marriageability by delivering an intact bride to her prospective husband,” the study said.
The study said many of those surveyed saw FGM/C as a “family affair” and a personal decision, in which the government should not interfere. “Therefore they are highly skeptical that regulations and laws recently introduced to stamp out the practice will actually succeed,” it said.
In 2008, Egypt passed a law criminalizing FGM/C with punishments ranging from three months to two years in prison, and a fine of 1,000-5,000 Egyptian pounds (US$183-912).
Experts believe that although female circumcision is widespread, considerable progress has been achieved. “The Demographic Health Survey of 2008 [published in 2009] showed that 72 percent of girls aged 15-30 were circumcised, compared to 96 percent of the same age group in the Demographic Health Survey of 1995,” said Azza Shalaby, gender adviser at Plan Egypt, a children’s development NGO.
Photo: Dana Hazin/IRIN
|A billboard in Cairo says “No to female circumcision”|
However, the Demographic Health Survey of 2008 also indicated that 91 percent of women aged 15-49 were circumcised.
Elaine Bainard, head of UNICEF Egypt’s Child Protection Section, believes the prevalence of FGM/C is high but decreasing. “We believe that as more and more families publicly declare their position not to cut, and as their daughters are successfully married, the momentum will grow further.”
Religious leaders, both Muslims and Christians, are playing an important role fighting in FGM/C, preaching that the practice is not related to Islam or Christianity.
However, there are conflicting views among them, according to the WHO-funded study. “This was particularly true for Muslim leaders, who are bombarded with contradictory messages from official religious scholars and so-called 'tele-sheikhs', religious figures on TV and other media,” the study said.
Physical, psychological damage
Meanwhile, circumcised girls and women are suffering physically and psychologically.
“The process of FGM/C can be very traumatic for girls, as they are compelled or forced to comply with the procedure. They must endure the physical pain but also the emotional aftermath of being subjected to the cutting by those she loves,” Bainard said.
Photo: Dana Hazin/IRIN
|FGM/C is deeply rooted in Egypt, particularly in rural areas|
In extreme cases, where the cut has been extensive, girls could face increased risks during childbirth, and incontinence, she added.
“Some women have urinary tract problems and others severe bleeding during delivery,” said Plan Egypt’s Shalaby. “But circumcised women worry less about health complications than the psychological effect and shock. They say they became more secluded and fearful.”
“Giving them [people] solid information about the benefits of abandoning FGM/C within the context of social pressure to abandon it, is achieving success, but it takes time,” Bainard said.