FGC in Egypt: An in-depth report

Recently, Orchid Project have undertaken desk-based research into FGC in Egypt and wanted to share this…

One in five FGC women who have undergone FGC live in Egypt, 91% of women and girls in the country, amounting to 27.5 million women and girls. With its population exponentially growing at around 1 million people per year, the absolute number of women undergoing the practice is set to increase dramatically, regardless of whether or not the current prevalence rate decreases.

Egyptians typically practice Types I and II forms of FGC, with Types III and IV seldom practiced. This is interesting because FGC is seen to originate in Egypt as pharaonic circumcision, more commonly known as Type III FGC. Pharaonic circumcision has numerous origins and is allegedly visible on Egyptian mummies. Despite this connection, the majority of Egyptians believe that FGC originated in Ethiopia, and therefore the debate on the origins of FGC is still rife.

The 2008 Egyptian DHS has shown that a mother’s level of education, residency and economic status are important variables for FGC. For example, urban women are less likely to be cut than rural women (EDHS, 2000, 2005 & 2008). The likelihood of cutting drops by education level and wealth quintile. The 2008 EDHS reports that 31% of girls in the highest wealth quintile are expected to be cut by the age of 18 compared with 73% of girls in the lowest wealth quintile.

The legality of FGC in Egypt has a colourful history. In 1993, the government banned FGC in public clinics after a picture was released by CNN of a young girl in a barber shop about to undergo FGC. This sparked international condemnation, and thus prompted to government to partially ban the practice. This had little effect as girls would be taken to a private clinic to undergo FGC, or would have a traditional cutter perform it on them in the privacy of their home. Furthermore, in 2008 11 year old Budour Ahmed Shaker died after undergoing FGC conducted by a doctor. This again prompted international frustration, and subsequently provoked the Egyptian government into banning FGC in both public and private hospitals. The ban was welcomed by NGOS and rights activists worldwide as a step in the right direction; however it is seldom enforced and has never been used to prosecute a parent or cutter. Notably, this is exemplified with the prosecution of the doctor who practiced FGC on a 13 year old girl in 2011. He has been taken to trial over her FGC related death; however he is being prosecuted under the Egyptian manslaughter act rather than the FGC act.

Although situated in the African continent, Egypt differs from all the other African FGC practicing countries. This predominantly refers to the 77% of FGC that is conducted in a medical environment or by a medical professional. The growing rate of FGC medicalisation in Egypt is something that concerns anti-FGC campaigners, particularly when understanding that the rate of medicalisation has risen from 55% to 77% in just over 20 years. This number is a result of the Egyptian government in particular, as they condoned medical FGC and promoted it until 2008. No other FGC practicing country in Africa has experienced the endorsement of their government to practice FGC, and due to the fact Egypt’s anti-FGC laws arose as a result of international pressure, it enhances the feelings of tradition and culture in opposition to what is often perceived as neo-colonialism in Egypt regarding anti-FGC campaigns. This was shown when the BBC went to Egypt in 2011 to ask about FGC. Of medicalisation, community members said how they are advanced and different from ‘black Africa’ as they aren’t practicing FGC in a barbaric or unhygienic way. Standardising the practice in medical facilities is thought to reduce harm. However, not only have studies demonstrated the harms caused by types I, II and IV (further demonstrated by the death of Budour Ahmed Shaker and Soheir al-Batea) but a reduction in severity of the cut does not minimise the gravity of the human rights violation that is taking place.  Ultimately, medicalisation works to legitimise FGC and makes abandonment of the practice more difficult to achieve.

NGOs, individuals and other civil society groups have been working since 1904 to abandon FGC in Egypt. The main initiatives occurred in 2006 and 2014, with a gap between 2008 and 2014 due to the Arab Spring and subsequent hostile environment. However, there were three main initiatives in 2014 that sought to reaffirm the commitment to ending FGC in Egypt. Firstly, the Adam Foundation for Humanitarian Development established their ‘Girl of the Nile’ campaign, where they travelled Egypt promoting Al-Azhar fatwas that condemn FGC. Secondly, the STOPFGM Middle East conference was held in Istanbul, where activists and UNICEF convened to discuss FGC. The conference concluded that Egypt is to lead the way in the fight against FGC in Asia and the Middle East, an important move in helping abandon FGC in Egypt. And thirdly, PLAN UK embarked on a knowledge building trip to Egypt to uncover the post-revolution FGC and child marriage environment. They found that people, especially women, still wish to practice FGC despite the acceptance of child marriage decreasing. Naturally, this high acceptance rate is challenging as the positive attitudes towards FGC have deepened since the Arab Spring.

These initiatives were important for continuing the work of NGOS that acted in 2008. Most important of these was the UNICEF-UNFPA Joint Programme on FGC that works at community, district and national levels. The programme coordinated with the Egyptian Ministries of Health and Family and Population in schools, health units and civil society organisations. Also established in 2008 was the Kamla Campaign, an Egyptian instigated initiative that saw over 20 civil society members and volunteers travel to Egypt teaching people about their harmful practices, notably FGC. Additional campaigns to help end FGC occurred in 2006 with the Reduction of FGM Project by PLAN Egypt and the Egyptian government, and the 2003 FGC Free Village Campaign that bolstered support from Plan International, the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood, and the UN Development Programme. Practically all of the pre-2014 initiatives have disappeared, with little to no status on their successes. This is likely to be a result of the hostile environment in Egypt, and the 75% reduction in funding by the Egyptian government to human rights charities, particularly those that work to end FGC. This is alarming for future generations that wish to act upon past initiatives to succeed in eliminating FGC in Egypt.

There are many future problems in regards to Egypt and FGC. As stated above, the medicalisation of FGC in Egypt is the key issue. The central problem in Egypt regarding medicalisation is that the ban against medicalisation is never enforced, even though 77% of all FGC is done by a medical professional in a medical environment. Another problem facing FGC abandonment in Egypt is the post-revolution environment. This perpetually hostile environment is challenging for both domestic and international organisations to penetrate, with only a few number of people offering an alternative view to that of the state. The Muslim Brotherhood has been known to travel Egypt in mobile FGC clinics to encourage FGC in all areas of the country. The have also stated how they oppose a complete ban on FGC because it goes against Islam. Moreover, since the revolution political instability has resulted in a financial decrease of 75% in Egypt’s FGC-related donor funds. This proliferates the challenges NGOs face in trying to abandon FGC in Egypt. Egypt is in an era of traditional and cultural enhancement, and this seeks to defend the country from all western influence and conspiracies, which the ant-FGC sentiment is considered. Until the political, social and economic situation becomes more inviting and willing to change, anti-FGC initiatives will not flourish.

Despite this, the fresh initiatives undertaken in 2014 are a promising indicator suggesting a renewed vigour by domestic and international organisations to end FGC in Egypt, regardless of the unstable environment. The Girl Generation, launched on October 11th – the UN International Day of the Girl Child – is an African-led global campaign to end FGC in a generation which is furthering the momentum for change by targeting 10 FGC practicing countries, of which Egypt will be one. The consortium will work with the UNJP which has worked closely with both civil society and government ministries for the last six years. Such joined up efforts are vital in moving towards the abandonment of FGC and we look forward to what the future may hold.