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Women’s empowerment in Egypt
by Mona Amin, National Project Coordinator for the FGM-Free Village Model

08 March 2006

Cairo, Egypt: UN Volunteers help women renounce genital mutilation

UNV and UNDP, in partnership with the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM), are working with communities to stop Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Egypt. The joint 'FGM Free Village Model' project discourages the practice by raising awareness of the harmful mental, physical and social side effects of FGM. UN Volunteers work in communities throughout the country, where they rally their peers and community and religious leaders to mount consensus against the practice. Their collective effort is making a difference as several villages have renounced the practice. The following article highlights one village that is setting the tone for the rest of the country.


The issue

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is widely practised in Egypt. It is estimated that 96 per cent of ‘ever-married’ Egyptian women of reproductive age are circumcised (EDHS 2005). FGM is deeply rooted in the tradition of the Egyptian society; there is no doctrinal basis for this practice in either Islam or Christianity but it is often wrongly perceived as being requested by religion. One of the main factors behind the persistence of the practice is its social significance for women and the strong social pressure at community level: it is believed that FGM will make a girl eligible for marriage giving her a better future, moderate her sexuality and make her a faithful wife, and contribute to personal cleanliness.

The project

The FGM-Free Village Model project represents an initiative aimed at stopping the practice of FGM in Egypt by eliminating the social pressure around women, targeting communities as a whole. After two years of interventions, using various educational and training approaches to connect with families, community leaders, health workers, youth activists and religious leaders, some communities are now overcoming peer pressure and convincing families not to circumcise. In June 2005, Benban, a village west of the Nile, some 30 km from Aswan, was the first village to make a public declaration to stop FGM.

Benban Anti-FGM declaration in Aswan: A critical turning point in the lives of women

When speaking with the Project Field Coordinator on the impact the Declaration had on the village of Benban in Aswan, she said: "At the beginning of the project I couldn't address more than 10 people in a seminar, furthermore, I had to play a low profile in order not to instigate the hostility of the people in the village. Women were convinced of abandoning FGM but they couldn't speak, as they feared the social pressure and they preferred to spare themselves any embarrassment in seminars or trainings. They came up with solutions like, ‘I will hide from my family the fact that I did not circumcise her and lie to my mother in laws about this matter’. Today, after the Benban Anti-FGM Declaration was announced, the same women are so loud and strong that no one can stop them from saying No to FGM!"

In a meeting with the women in Benban Village six months after announcing their Declaration, the most noticeable or flagrant thing observed by the project team was the tone of the meeting: loud and confident. A woman carrying her daughter on her shoulder told her peers eloquently, “You know the most important outcome from the declaration was the influence on men: they started listening to our problems that are caused by FGM. Now husbands can say ‘no’ to their mothers about FGM because we have a credible source that provided us with information. The extensive awareness sessions and the comprehensive manual about FGM produced by the project answered the most important questions on the religious and medical sides, because no one wants to do harm to his or her child or make God angry at us for breaking his commandments.”

Other women added, “We want a centre in our village that will offer us counselling services on childhood issues, not only FGM. We want to know about nutrition and basic health tips for improving the lives of our children.”

Community Doctors Supporting Anti-FGM National Movement

In a country where most incidences of FGM are practiced by doctors or service providers, the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM) had to address the Ministry of Health and Population (MOHP) personnel with this problem, especially that the Ministry has a decree issued since 1996 prohibiting doctors from practicing FGM in public hospitals or clinics. Yet, the decree abided to existing social pressures at the time, thus leaving a loophole for doctors to practice.

The dialogue with the medical community was opened by the NCCM Secretary General, Ambassador Moushira Khattab, along with supporters from the UN system and the donor community. Yet, the decree remained and the MOHP only issued an explanatory note for doctors, letting them know that if they practice FGM they could be severely punished.

The FGM Free Village Model project started working directly with the doctors located in the project villages and addressed them with the problem. Training was held in collaboration with the Egyptian Fertility Care Society for doctors from all the Upper Egypt governorates on Anti-FGM messages from all perspectives (medical, social, religious, and legal). The results, to our surprise, were very fulfilling: many doctors despise the practice and consider it a crime against girls.

Some of the stories gathered from the doctors included things like, “We heard from different sources about the Minister's decree on FGM, but we didn't know if it was activated. The Free Village Model project created a national conscious movement against FGM, thus we got to know of the decree.” Another doctor added, “This project confirmed my feelings against FGM, thus it supported me to take a serious stance against the practice.” Other stories shared by doctors from Aswan and Sohag governorates were very touching as they reflected on the amount of pain and fear that girls go through before and after the FGM incident. One doctor from Aswan said, “I couldn't believe the cases I saw when I was receiving my training in the General Hospital. I have seen totally mutilated girls to the extent that they were not able to urinate properly.” Others added comments like, “…We also saw women who feared any kind of intercourse with their husbands, as the genital part of the body is always associated with pain, fear and violence.”

During this intense dialogue, the project team asked the doctors attending, “Why do doctors practise FGM if they know the amount of suffering that is inflicted on young girls?” One of the doctors said, “Physicians are part of the community… they don't come from outer space, therefore they are subject to the social pressure, especially if they come from rural backgrounds where FGM is taken for granted, since their mothers or sisters support the practice. Now we know and feel more committed because we have facts from a comprehensive perspective.”

Policy makers supporting a community movement

The Free Village Model introduced a live model of coordination and collaboration between government institutions, NGOs, young volunteers, the media and international organizations. The NCCM, under the auspices of Egypt's First Lady, Mrs. Suzanne Mubarak, founded the solid grounds for ensuring partnership and chemistry among these parties in order to magnify the benefits of all financial and human resources available for the Anti-FGM cause. The Governors in Upper Egypt formulated decrees for ensuring that Egypt's Anti-FGM strategies are supported with implementation steps at the grass-root level.

During the project team’s recent visit to Aswan, the Secretary General of the Governor's office shared comments on the project: “I have to admit the important role played by the civil society in this project, because they know the demands of the communities more than any one else since simple rural people confide in NGOs on so many issues. The dialogue and partnership with the civil society today has shown such a great impact on development issues that neither one of us is willing to break this model. Policies and strategies should not be established in ivory towers, we need to establish them to make the lives of people better and not just to put them for the sake of being a decision for policy makers.”

The project team then asked the Secretary General on the decree issued by the governor for punishing or banning doctors who practise FGM, and he said, “The decree would not have been taken seriously if the project wouldn’t have worked so hard on the advocacy campaign against FGM. Winning the community leaders and allies inside the villages was the clue to this decree. When people started accepting the idea of abandoning the practice or even uttering their voices against FGM, then it was appropriate for the governor to issue a decree punishing physicians who practise it. Furthermore, one of the natives in Aswan (young project volunteer) reported a doctor practising FGM, and this meant to me that locals seriously want to stop FGM, as it is haunting the lives of their young girls, thus the doctor reported is currently being interrogated and his medical practice is stopped until all interrogations are finalized.”

The Secretary General added in his interview an insightful comment on volunteerism in Aswan after the declaration: “This project has helped young people to become volunteers from a development perspective, while previously we affiliated volunteers only with charity organizations or with pensioners who usually support these organizations. We need to make the young generation feel responsible and committed to developing their country the way they want and not others. Young people are inspired by new ideas and change, therefore investing in them on issues like FGM is the right thing.”

After sharing the thoughts of people in Benban Village of Aswan governorate, it is important to note that the first declaration instigated similar insights from their neighbouring governorates in Minya, Sohag, Beni Suef, Qena, Assiut and other parts of the same governorate. Furthermore, within this expanding national movement (in Upper and Lower Egypt) against FGM, Egyptian media has also consolidated this national voice by coming to an overall consensus about saying no to FGM!

Related links:

Gender equality & women's empowerment: Role of volunteers

Press coverage:

IRIN: Long battle ahead to end female circumcision - 8 June 2005

IRIN: Village declares itself FGM free – 26 June 2005

IRIN: Focus on efforts to stop FGM - 19 July 2005

IRIN: Rights bodies urge laws against FGM – 28 November 2005

UNV is administered by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)