Egypt: Long battle ahead to end female circumcision

Deeply entrenched cultural and traditional norms continue to hamper efforts to end the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) in parts of Egypt.
Female circumcision involves the partial or total removal of the external genitalia for cultural, religious or other non-medical reasons. It is usually performed on girls between the ages of four and 10.
A report released by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) in May revealed that 92 percent of adolescent girls in six districts of Upper Egypt had been circumcised. Furthermore, one third of all girls in the region were expected to be circumcised at some stage in their lives.

"This practice is prohibited by several international human rights agreements, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child," UNICEF assistant child protection officer, Yuko Osawa, told IRIN.

Since the controversial practice received global attention in 1994 at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, there have been concerted efforts to raise awareness of the related physical and psychological impact on young women.

Two years ago, UNICEF started an intervention programme targeting 42 communities in the governorates of Asiut, Sohag, Qena, and Minia in Upper Egypt. The programme is conducted under the umbrella of the National Council for Children and Motherhood (NCCM).

"We are trying to mobilise communities while building on the work already done by community members who vocally oppose this practice. We give them the necessary information telling them that FGM is an unnecessary procedure. We make sure that we don't impose ourselves or sound condescending," Osawa explained. She noted, however, that long-held traditional customs were often difficult to overcome.

"In the past the issue was not questioned. There's a general sense that FGM is a necessary practice in order to get girls married," she added.

But NCCM coordinator Magdy Helmy said the issue was much more complicated and expressed concern over the legal situation with regard to FGM.

"There are so many interrelated issues concerning FGM in Egypt. Religious and traditional beliefs often clash with health concerns," he told IRIN. "All we have is a ministerial decree stipulating that a doctor who performs FGM is in violation of administrative rules set out by the health ministry. This is often difficult to prove and punish," Helmy said.

In spite of this, UNICEF has recorded some progress in local communities.

"Once we are able to get into communities, people start talking and those who silently opposed this harmful practice become vocal. It is surprising to find that there are adolescent boys who do not want girls to be circumcised," Osawa noted.

Helmy agreed that some gains had been achieved following aggressive awareness campaigns.

"We have succeeded in changing the question from ‘where do we circumcise our daughters’? to ‘should we circumcise our daughters or not’? This is a great transformation," he said.