Egypt tackles silence on female circumsion

Egypt will highlight the battle against the practice of female genital mutilation when it hosts campaigners from African and Arab countries later this month.

Even though female circumcision has been banned in Egypt since 1997 and a campaign against it was launched here with 2003 named the “Year of the Girl,” most Egyptian girls still undergo the painful practice.

Egypt’s own campaign will get a new boost when Cairo hosts the Afro-Arab Expert Consultation for the Prevention of Female Genital Mutilation from June 21-23, with campaigners from Yemen as well as African countries like Senegal, Kenya, Mali, Burkina Faso and Chad.

It is sponsored by the European Commission and the National Council of Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM), a government organisation chaired by Egypt’s first lady Suzanne Mubarak.

“We must break the wall of silence and stir a national debate to prevent the practice being passed on to the next generation,” said Dina El-Naggar, an official with the United Nations Development Program, a partner in the campaign.

“There is great confusion among individuals who know nothing about its origins or its medical, psychological or social consequences,” she said.

The only Arab countries where female circumcision—removal of the clitoris—is carried out are Egypt, Sudan and Yemen, because of their links with Africa, which exported a practice deemed to protect the honour of girls.

The Egyptian health ministry issued a decree banning circumcision, which was upheld by the Council of State based on laws forbidding the “touching of the human body, except for medical necessity”.

Violators can face up to three years in prison. But “it should be understood that people practice circumcision for love of the child”.

“They listen to their hearts, not the laws,” Naggar said.

Om Ayman, a maid from the southern city of Beni Sweif who works in Cairo, is preparing to send her nine-year-old daughter Basma to her hometown to undergo the operation “because that’s the way we have always lived”.

Shahira, a 50-year-old housewife, told how it was “a whole ritual in our family. We were happy, my cousins and I, when our turn came because that showed we had grown up.

“But when I proposed doing it to our girls, my husband who is a doctor refused,” she said, expressing disappointment. The doctors’ professional association has taken a strong stand against circumcision, which many activists call female genital mutilation.

However, Naggar said, “some doctors don’t hesitate to do it to earn money, because such operations can bring them up to 20 000 Egyptian pounds ($3 300) a month.”

The program to fight circumcision was started in January in six governorates in southern Egypt, a conservative and economically undeveloped region.

“We want to create model villages before extending the experiment to other governorates,” said Mona Amin, coordinator of the NCCM.

Twelve non-government organisations (NGOs) were chosen to carry out the program in coordination with the authorities and local associations.

“Many people think that their daughter will not find a husband if she is not circumcised. Sometimes it’s a demand from her fiancé‘s family,” Naggar said.

“We want to create a global climate of opposition to circumcision, by organising literacy classes for mothers, awareness sessions and public debate,” said Magdi Helmi, head of health programs for Caritas, one of the NGOs involved in the program.

Circumcision is practiced by both Muslims and Christians even though no texts recommend it in either religion. According to the latest government study, carried out in 2000, 97% of Egyptian women are circumcised.

However, Helmi said, these figures which only concern married women between the ages of 15 and 49 years old are exaggerated. In addition, the study showed that the number of women who supported circumcision has decreased from 82% in 1995 to 75% in 2000. - Sapa-AFP

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