CAIRO – 23 August 2017: The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) highlighted that July, August and September represent a “cutting season”, as female genital mutilation (FGM) crimes increase during these months. The U.N. agency explained that during the school break, families tend to perform FGM on their girls as they have time to undergo and recover from the internationally recognized human rights violation.
For these girls, whose fate has put them in areas where their body is a piece of property for parents who blindly follow harmful customs and traditions, school holidays will always be linked to their terrifying and inhumane experiences, never sunshine, ice cream, joy or playtime as other girls around the world.
FGM is a phenomenon that is not limited to a country or a region, despite its significant spread in Africa. In the United Kingdom, the Department of Education (DoE) urges schools to be alert of the dangers of FGM ahead of the summer holidays. The DoE sends out an annual email to draw the schools’ attention to guidelines on keeping girls safe before the start of the summer break. The guidelines include information on reporting channels, warning signs to look out for, and ways to provide support and care for these girls. In the U.K., an estimated 66,000 girls and women have been victims of FGM, and as many as 24,000 girls under the age of 15 are believed to be at risk, according to the Guardian.
In 2014, the U.K. witnessed a campaign calling for an end to FGM in the Kingdom. The campaign was led by Fahma Mohamed, a 17-year-old student who gained the support of then-U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and the Pakistani school education activist and youngest ever Nobel Prize winner, Malala Yousafzai. A similar campaign was launched in the U.S. by an American mother of three, Jaha Dukureh.
In the U.S., activists also called on the government to gather more information about FGM in the U.S., as experts believe and warn that it is happening either inside the U.S. or by U.S. citizens who travel to other countries to perform the crime.
In August, UNFPA interviewed a traditional circumciser in Somalia, Asha Ali Ibrahim, who inherited her role from her mother. Asha said that “circumcision is important as a transition to adulthood,” according to UNFPA.
Asha explained that the girls she cuts are usually 7 to 10 years old, and that she sometimes cuts girls visiting Somalia from other countries, including the U.S. She added that girls coming from abroad are usually older than 10, which makes the procedure more difficult, as their tissue is more mature.
The Somali circumciser further explained that she uses a new razor for each girl she cuts, and she treats their wounds with a powder made of traditional herbs and antibiotic capsules that she gets from local pharmacies. Other tools that she uses include lidocaine, disposable syringes and cotton wool.
Asha said that she pours raw egg onto the wound to promote healing, before using a thick thread to sew the girls closed, and then she cleans up the wound with methylated spirits (alcohol for general use that has been made unfit for drinking by the addition of about 10 percent methanol, and typically also some pyridine and a violet dye).
Despite the fact that her own daughter developed an infection following the FGM procedure at seven years old, Asha continues to perform the risky practice, denying its consequences like childbirth complications. She is even planning to cut her granddaughter this summer.
What is FGM?
FGM is a practice that includes altering or cutting the female genitalia for girls between 7-10 years old. In some countries like Somalia, the procedure includes cutting the genitals and sewing them closed. This procedure can lead to serious long-lasting psychological and medical problems, including hemorrhage, infection, complications in childbirth, and even death as a result of excessive bleeding.
FGM has no medical or religious grounds. It is carried out for many reasons, including a belief that girls must be cut to control their libido. The United Nations estimates that 200 million girls and women alive today around the world have undergone some form of FGM.
Prevalence of FGM for women aged 15–49 year 2016 - Photo credit WHO
Egyptians inherited FGM from the Pharaohs. However, it has been legally criminalized since 2008, following decades of national campaigns and community initiatives to eradicate FGM. The FGM law in Egypt was toughened in 2016, making the procedure a felony. A report by the Egyptian government published in 2015 showed that the percentage of married women aged 15-49 who have been subjected to FGM dropped to 92 percent in 2014, while it was 97 percent in 2000. But the practice is still present in Egypt.
In some countries, including Egypt, some people party after a girl is circumcised, reflecting how deeply rooted this practice is in the tradition. This makes the process of confronting these beliefs and social norms even harder. This process should be systematic and should focus on engaging the whole community, with a focus on human rights and gender equality. It must also address the sexual and reproductive health needs of women and girls who suffer from its consequences.
Raising awareness and legal efforts are needed in Egypt and other parts of the world where the practice is being performed. Despite the decline in FGM prevalence, the world is witnessing a high rate of population growth, especially in FGM-practicing countries, meaning that the number of girls who undergo FGM will continue to grow if efforts are not scaled up.
UNFPA, in cooperation with the United Nations Children’s Organization (UNICEF), works with youth in countries where FGM is witnessed in order to raise social rejection of this practice. Young men say they will not “marry any girl who has undergone FGM, because we don’t want to live with the health complications,” and they also say that they “can only marry a girl who is over 18 and is not a victim of FGM.”
But the question remains: Would this be a successful approach? First, statistics from the “Understanding Masculinities: Results from the International Men and Gender Equality Study in the Middle East and North Africa” report showed that men in Egypt were significantly supportive of FGM, as 70 percent of the targeted sample approved the practice and endorsed circumcision of their daughters.
Second, this approach is not empowering for girls and women. It focuses on men’s preference, and not respecting girls’ and women’s dignity or protecting their bodies.
One of the efficient approaches introduced by the organization is to include religious leaders as allies to reach out to various groups in society, especially the rural areas where the practice is high; raise their awareness that FGM has no religious roots; preach about the harms of FGM; and also prohibit them from carrying out the practice.
A crucial group to be included in the fight against FGM is midwives. A start should be by developing a midwifery curriculum to teach women and girls who had undergone FGM how to manage FGM-related complications that arise during childbirth. In addition, it is important to include these trained midwives in advocacy campaigns and outreach activities to promote the abandonment of the practice.
Involving education institutions is also an effective approach. Curriculums should include calls for the abandonment of FGM and encourage community members and policymakers to abandon the practice. In May, the directors of the obstetrics and gynecology departments of all Egyptian universities announced that a curriculum on FGM will be developed and taught in all medical departments beginning in 2018.
Furthermore, as part of the efforts to combat FGM in Egypt, the Ministry of Health announced dedicating two hotlines for reporting FGM. In addition, the ministry started distributing awareness cards in August about the dangers of FGM.
In 2007, Egypt recognized June 14 as the national day to combat FGM. The date marks the death of a young girl named “Bodour” as a result of an FGM procedure. Furthermore, in cooperation with the U.N. agencies in Egypt, the country launched a National Anti-Female Genital Mutilation Strategy.