Egypt toughens penalties for Female Genital Mutilation but is it enough to eradicate the illegal practice?

Egypt introduces tougher penalties of up to 20 years in prison for FGM Credit: AP
  • By Digital Presenter and Producer Amani Ibrahimi

Egypt has introduced tougher punishments of up to 20 years in prison for those involved in female genital mutilation (FGM) in a bid to end the practice which is deeply embedded in the country’s culture. 

The new bill which was first introduced in January will hold everyone involved accountable including doctors and family members. 

Those found guilty of FGM will be jailed for a minimum of five years. If the procedure has caused the victim permanent disability, then the sentence will increase to seven years.

A minimum of 10 years and a maximum of 20 are the punishments when FGM results in the victim's death.

It’s the second time Egypt has tried to crack down on the ancient method.

In 2008, the country’s parliament approved a law banning the procedure which was then criminalised in 2016.

Senior Women’s Rights Researcher at Human Rights Watch, Rothna Begum, whose work focuses on the Middle East and North Africa believes that an additional increase to the penalty will make little difference in ending the "inhumane" practice.

''The authorities should be working to increase prosecutions and convictions for those practicing FGM, a national strategy that deters families from cutting girls and eliminating discriminatory attitudes against women and girls that fuels such practice," she said.

The procedure is not just an issue in Egypt, it's also carried out in other countries such as Mali, Gambia, Chad, Guinea Bissau, Somalia and Senegal.

The matter was widely discussed amongst world leaders in 2015 who vowed to eliminate the practice by 2030.

What is Female Genital Mutilation?

FGM refers to all procedures where partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs are performed for cultural reasons and not medical. 

There are no health benefits for girls or women who are cut, instead it can cause severe bleeding and problems urinating.

It can also lead to infections, problems with fertility as well as complications in childbirth. In some cases, the victim may even die.

According to the United Nations Population Fund, more than 125 million girls and women alive today have been cut in 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East. Some are cut from as young as between infancy and age 15 - before the start of puberty.

There are no health benefits for girls or women who are cut. Credit: AP

How bad is FGM in Egypt?

FGM has been around for decades in Egypt in both Islam and Christianity.

Some believe it prompts women’s chastity by stopping them from becoming adulterous. It's almost seen as a cultural requirement for some and a religious ritual for others.

Ms Begum argues: ''FGM is a discriminatory practice arising out of a belief that girls must have their sexuality controlled so that they can remain virgins before their marriage and do not commit adultery following marriage.

''This is both to ensure the ‘marriageability’ of girls and women as well as protecting the family’s reputation whereby the burden falls on female relatives to refrain from extramarital sex or relationships."

She cited a 2014 survey which found that half of married women in Egypt "agree that husbands prefer that their wife be circumcised [sic], and just under half of women (46%) believe that the practice deters adultery.''

Until very recently, it was deep-rooted into Egypt’s culture and traditions with some families even going as far as celebrating it.

87% of women aged 15 to 49 have undergone FGM in Egypt and about 14% of girls under 14 have been cut, according to UNICEF. 

Although the practice became illegal it did not completely eradicate it.

''It is largely practiced by medical doctors who openly advertise their services," Ms Begum said.

"Few people are taken to trial because police, prosecutors, medical professionals and other agencies turn a blind eye to the practice and may themselves be subjecting girl relatives to FGM."

In June last year, a father was charged for the genital mutilation of his three daughters. The physician who allegedly performed the procedure was also charged.

Just a few months prior to that, in February, a doctor was arrested after a 12-year-old girl he had performed FGM on died as a result of losing too much blood. Her parents and aunt were also arrested. 

Her death sparked a campaign led by doctors in Egypt to raise awareness of the dangers of FGM.

The campaign was entitled “White Coats” and saw doctors hand out leaflets with guidance and information outside of Cairo metro station. They also held posters with the slogans ''No to FGM'' and ''FGM is a Crime''.

In 2020, NHS data revealed the number of newly recorded cases of women and girls with FGM was 2,880. Credit: PA

Some activists argue that changing the law may not be enough to prompt change in society. Only a few cases make it to trial which could indicate how deeply-rooted the concept is.

''Egyptian authorities should develop guidelines and procedures to provide training and change attitudes among police, prosecutors, judges, health professionals, social workers and teachers to help them address the practice and to provide appropriate protection and services," Ms Begum said.

Despite the change in law, according to UNICEF, Egypt is one of the countries with the highest levels of support for FGM where more than half of its female population believe the practice should continue.  

Does FGM exist in the UK?

FGM is illegal in the UK and carries a prison sentence of up to 14 years but it does still exist among some communities.

In 2020, NHS data recorded 2,880 cases of women and girls with FGM in England.

FGM clinics have been set up in Leeds, Birmingham, Bristol and five London boroughs to offer physical and emotional help for victims.

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