CAIRO, Egypt (WOMENSENEWS)--This month, 10 villages in Niger, sponsored by UNICEF, pledged to end female genital mutilation--the traditional and widespread coming-of-age practice of cutting off all or part of a girl's clitoris--within their communities.
Also this month, local chiefs in the northern Kambia district of Sierra Leone signed an agreement that girls should not undergo the ritual until the age of 18, so they can have a say in the matter.
Unfortunately, progress has not come fast enough for some; a 7-year-old Kenyan girl bled to death in early April after being cut.
A report released by the European Parliament in April warns that the ritual practice is on the rise in European nations, with 180,000 girls at risk on the continent every year, despite legislation being debated in Parliament that would criminalize it in all European Union nations.
Here in Egypt, meanwhile, activists who worried that the country's attention-getting criminalizing of the cutting in June 2008 wouldn't be enforced say their fears have been fulfilled in the past year.
"It's no longer on the government's agenda, they've moved on," Seham Abdul Salam, a medical doctor turned anthropologist, said in a recent interview.
The law punishes practitioners with between three months and two years in jail or fines ranging from $190 to $940.
During the year since the law was passed, no charges have been pressed against parents or practitioners of genital mutilation, often referred to as FGM, in Egypt. A 2005 government health survey found 96 percent of Egyptian women who had ever been married had undergone the procedure.
Media interest in the issue has died out and Salam says the practice remains little changed in the country villages.
"In the villages, some parents don't even know the law exists. There's little awareness but a lot of support for FGM. They had it done, so they see no problem in doing it to their daughters. Some women are the strongest allies for FGM," Salam said.
But activists have not been stilled.
Many nongovernmental groups have made the tactical decision to treat FGM, legally speaking, as a child's issue, since the mutilation is usually inflicted around puberty.
Policies affecting women--from FGM to wearing headscarves to debates over polygamy and inheritance rights in personal status laws--often ignite battles between the government and the religious conservatives and the strategy of putting FGM in the context of childhood is designed to reduce the risk of conflict.
The United Nations Development Programme has sponsored a five-year project run by the Egyptian National Committee for Children and Women called the FGM-free village model. It partners with local groups and tries to secure funding for a range of social services, so they are not seen as outsiders with a single-issue focus on FGM. It has also launched a national media campaign of billboards and television commercials.
Marie Assad, a long-time FGM opponent in Cairo, says that many families feel culturally tied to the practice, but that she has also seen a "fantastic change" in society in over 30 years. "In the beginning, people didn't dare ask questions and those with credible information had no voice. The ones with no information were screaming and shouting and people were listening," she said.
Assad sees the law as an extra tool to help break down the tradition.
Dozens of Egyptian National Committee for Children and UNICEF teams go door-to-door in Egypt, mostly in more rural villages outside of Cairo, speaking to families and discussing the health risks related to FGM.
Other groups, including UNIFEM, the Population Council and the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights, take a "positive deviance" approach of seeking families who have opted to go against the social norm and providing them support and encouraging others to come together against FGM.
The law, which amended existing laws on children, was sparked by two girls' deaths tied to genital mutilation in 2007.
The deaths fanned international criticism that had been growing since 1994, when CNN aired a film of a young girl being mutilated in Upper Egypt.
The new child law also prohibits corporal punishment and gives unmarried new mothers the right to list their surname on their infants' birth certificates.
The FGM ban retains a clause allowing the operation "in cases of medical emergency."
Critics argue that there is never any medical reason for FGM. They say it was inserted to appease the Islamic conservative minority.
Some historians believe the FGM tradition dates to as early as 500 B.C. and was practiced in ancient Egypt.
In 2007 Egypt's senior Islamic leader, Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, said the practice was forbidden by Islam, arguing that while it had been accepted in the past, recent health studies of its dangers make it unacceptable. He noted that the Prophet Muhammad's wives and daughters did not undergo the dangerous and sometimes deadly procedure.
Some scholars point to a verse in the Quran (An-Nisa: 119) warning that Satan will try to trick humans into body modification: "And I will surely lead them astray, and arouse desires in them, and command them and they will cut the cattle's ears, and I will surely command them and they will change God's creation." This passage has been interpreted as forbidding altering the human body by any means, whether FGM, tattoos or piercings.
The leader of Egypt's Coptic minority, Pope Shenouda, has also said that the Bible does not demand, or even mention, genital mutilation.
Some local imams nonetheless remain staunch supporters of the practice and have characterized efforts to stamp it out as a form of cultural invasion.
Last year, the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest--yet officially illegal--opposition party, denounced the law for interfering in traditional--and Islamic--practices and held a workshop against the law two days before the vote. A member of a smaller opposition party, Mohamed Al Omda, brought his three daughters and mother to the floor of Parliament, proudly saying they had all undergone the practice.
Iman Azzi is a freelance journalist based in the Middle East.
For more information:
UNDP FGM-Free Village Model Fact Sheet
UNDP PSA 1 "The Beginning of the End Campaign"
The Egyptian Center for Women's Rights
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