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More campaigns are needed to protect girls in Egypt

In the village of Abu Nashaba, a thirteen year old girl has just died and her family have quickly buried the body without the necessary permit from local authorities. Clearly distraught at her loss, what could the family have to hide?

They are suspected of hiding the fact that the thirteen year old recently underwent a female circumcision, a procedure which is illegal in Egypt because of the risks it carries to a woman’s health. Her death was reported anonymously to the authorities and the girl’s doctor has now been arrested, accused of carrying out the illegal operation. Regardless of the law prohibiting female genital mutilation, which was passed in 2008, this case and others like it show the practice is still widespread in the country.

The Egyptian government has been prosecuting medical workers and closing down clinics found to be carrying out such circumcisions. And these actions, as well as public campaigns, have had some effect. Government statistics show that the number of girls between the ages of 15-17 who have been circumcised has dropped from 77% in 2005 to 74% in 2008. Among women in their twenties or older, 90% are circumcised.

But still the progress towards reducing the incidence of this brutal practice is much slower than many agencies would like, since traditional views are hard to break. Many Egyptians believe the practice reduces sexual temptation for a woman and also that it is essential for their daughters to make a good marriage. The practice is thought to date back to the time of the Pharaohs and is extremely common in poor, rural communities.

Education is seen as the key. The Family Minister, Mushira Khattab, talks of the national strategy to show there is no religious obligation to circumcise women and to promote its dangers. In one recent campaign, supported by local charities and international agencies in the al-Hawatka region, 500 locals were gathered into a huge decorated tent. Here children sang and women were encouraged to go up on stage in front of their spouses to talk about the problems of female circumcision. Afterwards, parents were encouraged to sign a pledge that they would not subject their daughters to the operation. A spokesperson from Unicef, the United Nation’s children’s agency, said that it was important attitudes were changed and people realised that circumcision took away “an important part of [a woman’s] body that makes her enjoy a fulfilling life, and that it is a woman’s right to decide what to do with her body.

Agencies and the Egyptian government have an uphill struggle to educate the public on this issue. A government survey found that 88% of Egyptian households read not books and three-quarters do not read any kind of newspapers or magazines. And though nearly three-quarters of youngsters aged 15-29 used the internet to read material, most browsed for religious texts or sport. So more campaigns like the tent rally in al-Hawatka are needed. Otherwise young girls will continue to die from the procedure.

Laurinda Luffman signature