Egypt's battle against FGM: What have we learned?

An Egyptian social worker holds a poster raising awareness of female genital mutilation, a banned procedure that nevertheless remains common in a country steeped in tradition. Photo by: UNICEF Australia

On June, 6, 2013, 13-year-old Soheir al-Batea of Daqahliya, northeast of Cairo, died after a doctor performed female circumcision — a practice also referred to as female genital mutilation — on her in his clinic. The physician who conducted the procedure was called in for questioning, interrogated and released on bail pending further investigation.

Months later, a much-delayed forensic report was issued stating the cause of young Soheir’s death to be an allergic reaction to penicillin and no reference was made to the FGM procedure. Sadly, Soheir’s father, who had taken her to the clinic himself, confirmed the doctor’s claims that his daughter suffered from a condition that prompted her to visit the clinic, and the doctor was acquitted.

Soheir’s death was not the first of its kind. She joins a long list of girls who have lost their lives to the ancient practice of FGM and its complications, still rampant in 21st-century Egypt.

FGM remains one of the most complex and challenging issues facing the physical and psychological health of Egyptian women today. In 2008, the Egypt Demographic Health Survey indicated that a staggering 91 percent of married women aged 15-49 had been subjected to this violent procedure.

Egyptians of both the Muslim and Coptic Christian faiths perform FGM citing various interrelated reasons for why they continue to adhere to the practice, including upholding tradition, maintaining cleanliness, controlling behavior, ensuring marriageability, curbing sexual desire and often, what they believe to be religious teachings.

To counter these motivations, Egyptian groups, civil society organizations, physicians, activists, researchers and women’s advocates (at one point known as the FGM Task Force) have for several decades lobbied extensively with government and religious authorities to help raise awareness of the severity of the FGM situation in Egypt. These efforts eventually culminated in the addition of an article to the penal code in 2008 that declares FGM to be a crime punishable by law, in addition to the procedure being declared religiously forbidden by Egypt’s highest religious authority, Al Azhar.

Despite these significant steps, bringing FGM prevalence rates down has proven to be a slow and difficult process — mostly so because, despite the clear legal and religious framework surrounding FGM, there remains a vast disconnect between state and society, with much of the awareness-raising efforts conducted at the community level being insufficient, patchy, short-lived and ill-funded.

Further, for several years, national anti-FGM programs — such as the FGM-Free Village Project — were spearheaded, and monopolized, by the National Council for Child and Motherhood which was led by Egypt’s ex-first lady, Suzanne Mubarak, and closely affiliated with the old regime. This label often led to “fake successes” whereby out of resistance to the government and lack of conviction, people would nominally claim to have been converted against anti-FGM but continue to perform it in hiding.

Often, the language spoken when organizing awareness-raising meetings with local communities simply did not resonate. According to Dr. Magdi el Khayat of the Coalition to Fight FGM, a collective of now eighty CSOs founded in 2009 working on fighting FGM in Egypt, people often felt that laws and regulations coming from the capital simply parachuted on them with little work done to actually reverse their perceptions and understanding of FGM. So people would simply ignore these rules, el Khayat suggested.

More recently, beyond the fact that there is no actual system of enforcement of anti-FGM laws, the political and social upheavals following the January 2011’s uprisings have dealt the gains of years of anti-FGM campaigning a strong blow.

Following Hosni Mubarak’s fall and the Muslim Brotherhood’s ascent to power, the latter sought to gain further control of society by invoking a more conservative discourse around women’s rights. Members of the conservative Islamic current used several strategies to push for FGM to be publicly endorsed and privately observed. Such strategies included organizing mobile medical caravans that offered cheap male and female circumcision “services” to residents, attempting to amend Article 242 of the criminal law that penalizes FGM under the pretext that it’s a product of the old regime (or what some called “Suzanne Mubarak’s Law”), in addition to various public statements supporting the practice and calling it “a form of beautification” for a woman.

While the social impact of these statements and actions is unclear, Dr. Randa Fakhr el Din, founder of the Coalition Against FGM, believed that “one year under the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule took Egyptian women and their rights 20 years back.”

One year into their reign, in July 2013 following massive protests, the Muslim Brotherhood was removed from power by the military. It was initially seen as a welcome development by most women’s groups and activists that had expressed repeated concerns about the previous government’s approach and public statements.

As Egypt enters a new stage, this is perhaps an opportune moment to take stock of the progress of anti-FGM efforts to date, identify shortcomings, and start drawing the way forward in the long-term battle against FGM. Here are some lessons learned.

1. Partner locally

Laws, conferences, funding, meetings, books and print material are essential building blocks for developing the framework necessary for fighting FGM. Yet on their own, these blocks are incapable of leading to long-term changes in the hearts and minds of millions of tradition-observing Egyptians. The conversation about FGM needs to leave offices and move onto the community level where the real decisions on whether to circumcise or not are made.

There is still an immense amount of awareness about FGM and its consequences that needs to be raised over time at the community-level for this message to not be seen as alien to the local setting or infringing upon local customs.

2. Package the message

Traditionally, anti-FGM initiatives implemented at the community level focused solely on the practice’s negative consequences and on getting people to “Say No to FGM.” However, evaluations of several anti-FGM programs demonstrate that this approach is counterproductive and ends up backfiring because people feel their local traditions and customs are under attack. People are often quoted saying that this is a Western conspiracy targeting Egypt’s local traditions that need to be protected.

It is essential, then, for information about FGM to be delivered as part of a comprehensive package of local development that includes education, health, personal rights and public awareness to avoid coming across as foreign. Further, all such information needs to be delivered by local NGOs, community-based organizations and individuals that have an established relationship with and enjoy the trust of community members.

3. Share experiences

FGM has traditionally been a taboo topic that most women shy away from discussing publicly. But according to the Coalition Against FGM, people are significantly more responsive to the message when exposed to personal stories and experiences. The coalition works with young women who have been subjected to FGM who agree to publicly share their stories and inform others of the impact of the procedure on their lives. This approach seems to be most effective as the message delivered by young women is approachable, unintimidating, and easier to relate to. While a similar approach of recruiting individuals who refused to circumcise, Positive Deviants, was previously used, it was small in scale and impact.

It is important to nurture a generation of young champions capable of speaking publicly about their experiences and answering difficult questions about the procedure.

4. Coordinate

Recently, the country’s political instability, heightened government-imposed restrictions on NGO funding and activities, and fear of being affiliated with the old regime have made it difficult for women’s rights groups and activists to coordinate. For the coming stage, it is critical for women’s NGOs and activists to exert more efforts towards creating a common front pushing women’s rights to the forefront of public debates, and to forge solid partnerships with state, private sector, media actors and religious leaders.

5. Avoid monopolies

Egypt’s experience with the NCCM highlights the potential negative outcomes of the discourse, funding, implementation and public face of a development issue being monopolized by any one institution, be it the government, a political party or otherwise. Rather than pooling their resources into one entity, donors and international organizations should strive to partner with a myriad of local organizations that enjoy proximity to local communities and would benefit from the capacity building associated with the incoming funding.

Finally, on a positive note, in March 2014, Egypt’s prosecutor general announced that both the physician responsible for young Soheir’s death and her father will stand trial in a landmark decision regarding a death caused by FGM. The decision brings a lot of hope for a more progressive, just and decisive government attitude towards FGM.

Nevertheless, this trial is a drop in a sea that also comes as a reminder of what an endemic social problem FGM is, and provides further motivation for civil society organizations to intensify their work in this uphill battle towards an eventual abolishment of this tragic practice.

Want to learn more? Check out She Builds and tweet us using #SheBuilds.

She Builds is a month-long conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Chemonics, Creative Associates, JBS International as well as the Millennium Challenge Corp., United Nations Office for Project Services and the U.K. Department for International Development.

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About the author

  • Pic nihal elwan

    Nihal Elwan

    Nihal Elwan is an international development professional with ten years experience researching, designing, implementing and evaluating social development programs with a particular focus on gender and youth issues. She has worked extensively in the Middle East, and currently serves as a World Bank consultant focusing social protection and gender for the Middle East region. Elwan previously worked with the U.N. Development Program, the International Labor Organization and the International Population Council.