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Egypt increases prison terms for female genital mutilation

Human rights groups applaud Egypt’s recent crackdown on female genital mutilation as a positive step, but also note political change must be accompanied by significant shifts in cultural and religious attitudes.
A counsellor holds up cards used to educate women about female genital mutilation (FGM) in Minia June 13, 2006. The practice of FGM dates back over two thousand years in Egypt and is widely practiced in all levels of society for [Muslims and Christians] alike. [Many organizations like UNICEF] have funded programs to help educate people about the risks and dangers of FGM in order to change people's opinions on this procedure which is seen by many as a necessary social norm. Picture ta

CAIRO — The Egyptian parliament has significantly boosted criminal penalties for female genital mutilation (FGM), passing an amendment that is widely welcomed by many segments of Egyptian society. Human rights groups are hoping, but are not convinced, that the amendment will help reduce this widespread phenomenon across Egypt.

In 2008, Egypt banned FGM operations in governmental and nongovernmental hospitals and other private or public practices following the death of an Egyptian teenager, Baddour Shaker, who had undergone the procedure in June of that year.

A few months later, an article was added to the penal code criminalizing FGM and punishing those who force it upon women with jail terms of three months to two years, in addition to a fine of 1,000-5,000 Egyptian pounds ($113 to $563).

The bill defined FGM as being “the partial or full removal of the external genital parts or deformity of such parts without any medical justification.”

Mona Ezzat, the head of the Women and Work Program at Egyptian human rights group New Woman Foundation, told Al-Monitor, “FGM is associated with the prevailing customs, traditions and culture in society. It is practiced in [Egypt] because parents are still totally convinced of its viability. Thus, forcing society to relinquish this tradition should not be done through laws alone.”

People in nonurban governorates even have traditional songs about FGM, which is seen as a part of their heritage. To change this attitude, Ezzat said, requires changing the culture, religious rhetoric and school curricula, in addition to rigorously applying the law.

In all the years since FGM was first criminalized, Egyptian courts have only dealt with two related lawsuits. In June 2013, Suhair al-Bataa, 13, died during an FGM procedure performed by Dr. Raslan Fadl in Dakahlia. For the first time in Egypt, a public prosecutor there referred the case to a court.

Though Fadl initially was acquitted in November 2014, prosecutors appealed the ruling. The Court of Appeal in Mansoura sentenced him in 2015 to two years in prison with hard labor for manslaughter and three months for performing the illegal procedure, while shutting down his practice. However, Fadl served only three months of the sentence after the family accepted a financial settlement, according to Human Rights Watch. The girl’s father was sentenced to three months for forcing his daughter to have the procedure.

In July of this year, the public prosecutor of Faisal city in Suez governorate charged a doctor and a girl’s mother with manslaughter after the 17-year-old died during FGM surgery in May. Authorities said Mayar Mohamed Mousa died in a private hospital as a result of severe blood loss during the procedure.

The hospital was closed and there were demands for harsher punishments for offenders, prompting parliament to approve an amendment Aug. 29. The law now requires prison terms of five to seven years for those who perform FGM and as much as 15 years if the case results in permanent disability or death.

Egyptian society continues to be greatly swayed by customs and traditions more so than religious views — which appears to be progress. In fact, prominent clerics in Egyptian society, such as Ali Gomaa, the former grand mufti of Egypt, have stood against FGM. Yet, this hasn’t been enough to influence the community.

On June 14, 2015, Egypt launched a National Anti-FGM Strategy. The incentive was backed by the National Program to Enable the Family and Eliminate FGM; the public prosecutor; the ministries of Population, Health, Interior, Education, Awqaf and Higher Education; Al-Azhar University; Dar al-Ifta al-Masriyya (The Egyptian House of Religious Edicts); the Egyptian Church; and the National Council for Women.

According to the Demographic and Health Survey "Egypt 2014," the number of women undergoing FGM has declined. It showed that the number of mutilated females ages 15-17 dropped to 61% that year, compared with 74% in 2008.

The same survey said 92% of the polled women of reproductive age (15-49), who were or had ever been married, had undergone FGM, compared with 96% in 2005.

The survey showed that FGM among all women ages 15-49 decreased by 6% between 2005 and 2014 and by 13% among women ages 15-17 between 2008 and 2014. Yet the number of women undergoing this procedure is still alarming.

Ezzat of the New Woman Foundation told Al-Monitor a dramatic effort will be needed to raise awareness among families and parents in their homes. “The message relayed by officials on television is not enough to sound the alarm on the seriousness of this practice,” she said.

Azza Soliman, the head of the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance, praised efforts made by the media and Egyptian educational representatives to battle the phenomenon. She cited, however, the need for more support from the religious community to help change societal perceptions about the problem.

“It is imperative to find an enlightening religious discourse to clarify the religion’s stance on this issue,” she told Al-Monitor.