Last week, 17-year-old Mayar Mohamed Mousa and her twin sister were admitted into a private clinic in Egypt’s Suez province for a life-changing procedure. While under anesthetic, Mayer suffered from a heavy bleed and passed away. She was undergoing an operation to cut away part of her genitalia- known as female genital mutilation– a procedure that has no medical benefits and many complications.
At least 200 million girls and women have experienced FGM in 30 countries across three continents. It can lead to death, lifelong complications such as abnormal periods, infections, a lack of sexual desire and painful intercourse, infertility, childbirth problems and new-born deaths, alongside leaving deep psychological scars.
In 2008, Unicef estimated that 91% of married Egyptian women aged between 15 and 49 had been cut or mutilated – 72 per cent of them by doctors, a figure which has since increased by 10 per cent. This is lower than the estimates of the 2000 Demographic and Health Survey which indicated that 97 per cent of married women included in the study had experienced FGM/C. To put these figures in context, a UNFPA representative said that if the practice was eradicated in Egypt, it would get rid of one-fourth of the cases worldwide.
While the occurrence of FGM is often attributed to the less educated, rural communities, its continuation relies on the complicity of medical professionals, and also the police and judges, for example. Many still believe the procedure is a positive thing, with arguments such as preserving girls’ “purity” and preventing adultery cited as justification. FGM also cuts across religions, with both Islamic and Christian communities in Egypt carrying out the procedure. Alongside it’s cultural significance, it is deeply rooted in the patriarchal control of women’s bodies that exists in all societies across the globe.
While FGM has been illegal in Egypt since 2008 and in 2015 a national strategy to eliminate it was launched, weak legislation and a lack of enforcement means there is still a long way to go before the state effectively challenges the practice.
“Of course it is important to have the legislation, I think it’s essential. However, the current legislation is quite weak and there is a need to reform it,” said May El Sallab FGM/C coordinator for United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). “It’s currently a misdemeanor and it needs to become felony, for example.” She also noted the complexity of the law, which means that only if a girl dies is it likely that the case will go to court.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of Dr. Raslan Fadl, the first doctor prosecuted for performing FGM after 13-year-old Shuair al-Bata’a died in his care. Activists welcomed the decision last year, however, despite receiving a prison sentence of two years for manslaughter and an additional three months for performing the procedure, Dr Fadl still hasn’t been arrested.
Suad Abu-Dayyeh, Middle East and North African Consultant from Equality Now, an organization that has been following the proceedings, described the elation at the prosecution and revoking of his medical license, but also the disappointment that followed. “I was in Cairo and we met with the Chief of Police and he promised to arrest him, and until now he is not arrested so we are a little bit disappointed at the performance of the Egyptian government.” Abu-Dayyeh believes he could still be performing the procedure privately.
I asked why Dr. Fadl remains free. “I think he is very influential in his area. He is a doctor, he is imam in the mosques and he basically helped poor people with medication…he is well known… so I think the police are a little bit ashamed of arresting him.” She added: “The law should be enforced and that is what we are aiming at Equality Now, to have a good law, but also to implement that law.”
It was thanks to the work of Equality Now, who was part of triple-pronged pressure campaign with Egyptian lawyer Reda el-Danbouki and Egypt’s state-run National Population Council, that the prosecution ever took place. The case was initially dropped after an official medical report claimed that Sohair died as a result of a reaction to penicillin, which was taken to treat her for genital warts.
This is similar to Mayar’s case- the initial results of an autopsy performed cite blood clotting as the possible cause of death and her mother, a nurse at the same hospital, claimed she died during an operation for something unrelated. The incident was only discovered by a health inspector who was called to check on the girl’s death and investigated further. Abu-Dayyeh says that many more cases like this go unreported because health inspectors simply issue a death certificates claiming the girl died from something else and then she is buried.
While there are efforts to eradicate the practice at both the government and local level, a lack of coordination under a nation wide approach hamper abilities to tackle the problem. UNFPA recommend the inclusion of FGM in the curriculums of medical students and more control over private practices, while Equality now stresses the need to involve local decision makers and for grassroots organisations to join together. In short, there is much that still needs to be done.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.