Egypt And The Bill Of FGM: More Punishment, Less Data

Illustration by Marek Tartal on Fine Acts (Modification made: Added translucent background)

BY NANA ABUELSOUD

Since the beginning of 2021, came under spotlight Egypt’s senate and parliament discussions around a bill amending some provisions of the Penal Code toughening penalties for female genital mutilation (FGM). Some of those discussions that infiltrated the media provoked a 90’s nostalgia, in which the majority of members asserted the need for more punitive reactions to a never-dying practice while debating the vitality of the cutting and the cultural and religious reasoning maintaining this harmful practice. 

On April 28, the Egyptian parliament approved the bill. Without counting here how many more years behind bars were thought to be enough to end a life-long practice, the new amendments recognize the role of health service providers in sustaining FGM practices. They stipulate a stricter punishment if the offender is a nurse or a doctor, extending liability to the health facility where the crime took place by ordering its closure for the same period during which the offender is suspended from their job. Moreover, finally, the new amendments dropped the phrasing ‘medical necessity’ as a basis for picking up this practice. 

On April 28, the Egyptian parliament approved the bill. Without counting here how many more years behind bars were thought be enough to end a life-long practice, the new amendments recognize the role of health service providers in sustaining FGM practices.

Since it became a crime in 2008, only a handful of FGM cases were reported. Majority of which were spotted after the victims/survivors suffered severe complications or died. 

According to the latest demographic health survey (2014), 6 out of 10 women responded that FGM should continue. Basically, the law on its own will not end FGM. It also highlighted girls to be much more likely circumcised by medical personnel (82%) when compared to adult women (38%). This case of medicalization is supported by recent evidence surveying medical students’ attitudes and knowledge towards FGM. One of the conclusions drawn from this survey is that the majority of medical students think that FGM would be safer when carried out by doctors. And 40.5% of them are unfamiliar with and never heard of FGM law. This, yet again, indicates that a law on its own will not end FGM. Awareness campaigns should also address medical students and health providers to understand their attitudes, gauge their knowledge, and deliver the news on FGM penalities. 

There is also a soaring need for reliable data to understand women’s and families’ attitudes towards FGM, which can be helpful to craft awareness messaging addressing their fears and considerations. Moreover, to conclude what has and has not worked across national awareness campaigns over the past decades.

The socio-cultural reasons of pain inflicted across generations would not be stopped through more prison years.

The national council for motherhood and childhood (NCMC) has dedicated a hotline service for interventions in situations that FGM is a threat. However, since this service was put in place, no data is available on the number of FGM reports, the number of successful or failed NCMC interventions, and if NCMC awareness campaigns rely on insights from this hotline to adapt their messaging to move from reactionary to prevention approaches. This missing data situation is a consequence of a more broad absence of data in Egypt, since the cancellation of the 2018 Demographic Health Survey (DHS). Therefore, the latest reliable data on FGM and other sexual and reproductive rights issues are from 2014.

While it is a great step forward to recognize the role of health providers in upholding this harmful practice and expanding the responsibility to include not just individuals but also facilities; toughening the penalties has not proved to be effective on its own to change the cultures surrounding FGM. The socio-cultural reasons of pain inflicted across generations would not be stopped through more prison years. People will find a way outside of health facilities to carry on with this harmful practice. 

The Egyptian government should support accurate data and research and make them accessible for experts to develop relevant policy recommendations based on evidence. Moreover, it should engage in awareness messaging to address parents and communities, adapt medical school curriculum to increase the sense of responsibility of health providers to end this practice. Lastly, support and fund comprehensive sexuality education in and out of school.