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Drop the knife
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 23 - 08 - 2007

In the wake of the deaths of two young girls, a national campaign against female genital mutilation is picking up steam. Reem Leila examines what is being done to permanently ban what is being called butchery
Karima Rahim Masoud, the 13-year-old girl from Manshyiat Al-Yacoubiya village in Gharbiya, who died two weeks ago from female genital mutilation (FGM), was the second such victim reported over the past two months. Accordingly, Egypt's national campaign, launched following a request by Mrs Suzanne Mubarak, head of the technical consultative committee of the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM) to combat FGM, is gaining momentum.
The campaign, under the slogan "The Beginning of the End", included a conference held last week in Tanta University in Gharbiya governorate. The conference was headed by Mushira Khattab, secretary-general of the NCCM, and attended by Nasr El-Sayed, under- secretary for Preventive Affairs at the Ministry of Health and Population (MOHP), Madiha Khattab, head of the Health Committee of the National Democratic Party (NDP), Gharbiya Governor El-Shafei El-Dakrouri, and Sheikh Abdel-Hamid Shahin, deputy minister of Waqf (religious endowments), in addition to 350 female rural tutors.
In the first such conference in Alexandria earlier this month, the Health Ministry sounded out its plan to decrease FGM by 20 per cent as part of a LE9 million campaign.
Egypt is highlighting the battle against the practice which also goes by the name female genital cutting (FGC). The term "circumcision" is used only for boys. Last month's death of Bedour Shaker, 12, sparked a national debate over the issue.
FGM/FGC was being combated as early as 1904, but secretly, by Sheikh Mohamed Rashid Reda. In 1954 and 1996, the practice was banned except when medical intervention was deemed necessary, and a campaign to eradicate the practice was launched in 2003. Most Egyptian girls still undergo the painful practice. "We must break the wall of silence and stir a national debate to prevent the practice being passed on to the next generation," NCCM's Khattab during in the Tanta conference.
The only Arab countries where FGM, which involves removing the clitoris, is carried out is in Egypt, Sudan and Yemen, because of their links with Africa, which exported a practice deemed to protect the honour of girls.
Women in some 26 African countries, including Egypt, undergo the practice. Reportedly, 80 per cent of the poor and 30 per cent of wealthy Egyptian families subject their girls to FGM.
FGM, which usually involves the removal of the clitoris and other parts of female genitalia, is considered by many people as a necessary practice that tames a girl's sexual desires and maintains her honour.
Following an appeal by Minister of Waqf Hamdi Zakzouk, starting next week and for one month, all Friday sermons in all of Egypt's mosques will centre on FGM. The preachers will stress that the practice has nothing to do with Islam or with any sexual desires.
The latest death was reported when Karima's father applied for a death certificate, insisting his daughter had died from natural causes.
Mahmoud Habib, the physician who performed FGM on Karima, was released without charge. A forensic report to the general prosecution is pending. El-Sayed said violators are subject to ministerial decree No 271 for the year 2007 which entails shutting down private clinics and the possibility of undergoing a professional investigation at the Egyptian Physicians' Syndicate which could result in a ban on practicing medicine for up to five years.
According to NCCM's Khattab, a plan to fight FGM has gone into action across Egypt's governorates, with special emphasis on southern Egypt, by conducting several awareness sessions and public debate, media campaigns and flyers to explain the drawbacks of FGM. "Aswan, Sohag, Minya and Beni Sweif have announced their rejection of FGM and have publicly signed documents making their refusal official," Khattab said. "We want to create model villages before extending the experiment to other governorates," she added. The council aims at creating a global climate of opposition to FGM. NCCM has already prepared a draft law banning FGM in Egypt, to be submitted to the People's Assembly (PA) during its next session in November.
Khattab also warned that several individuals, satellite channels, websites and civil society institutions publicise the necessity of FGM for alleged, "and false", religious, moral and medical reasons. "They contribute to the killing of innocent people such as Karima and Bedour and inflict physical and psychological damage on many girls and women."
Khattab said NCCM had established an hotline number 16,000 for any information or questions on FGM. Religious, medical and psychological experts will be manning the telephones 24 hours a day.
Among practising cultures, FGM is most commonly performed between the ages of four and eight, but can take place at any age, from infancy to adolescence. Prohibition has led to FGM going underground, at times with people who have had no medical training performing the cutting without anesthetic, sterilisation, or the use of proper medical instruments. The procedure, when performed without any anesthetics, can lead to death through shock from immense pain or excessive bleeding. Failure to use sterile medical instruments may lead to infections. "Hepatitis C is among the fatal viruses which could be transmitted to girls during this practice," Khattab, of the NDP, said. Other serious long-term health effects are also common, including urinary and reproductive infections caused by obstructed flow of urine and menstrual blood, various forms of scarring and infertility. "Some 70 per cent of female infertility rates in Egypt are due to FGM/FGC," NDP's Khattab added.
El-Sayed said FGM was never and is not taught at any of Egypt's medical faculties, contrary to male circumcision.
At the end of the conference, representatives of Gharbiya youths submitted thousands of petitions which they want delivered to PA Speaker Fathi Sorour. They include requests that NCCM pass a draft law on FGM as soon as possible.


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