The ‘Arab Spring’: what could it mean for female genital cutting in Egypt and Yemen?

Wednesday 30 March 2011

The recent pro-democracy protests in Egypt and Yemen have received global attention, so we wanted to talk about the FGC issues and abandonment efforts in each country.

Even though FGC is thought to have originated in Egypt around 2,200 years ago, (See Mackie, The Beginning of the End), many people are unaware that the practice continues there. Our own Prime Minister, David Cameron, mentioned FGC at a recent International Women’s Day event, but was surprised to learn of the prevalence of female genital cutting there when he met Julia.

91% prevalence in Egypt

The national prevalence of FGC in Egypt is 91% (according to 2008 data, Unicef Innocenti Digest) with most girls cut before their 13th birthday. In 2008, a law was passed criminalising FGC with punishments including up to two years in prison and a fine. The then First Lady of Egypt also publicly condemned the practice and a fatwa against FGC was released by prominent Muslim leaders in 2006. Despite the continued high prevalence rates, Unicef and others see progress being made.. For example, a recent Unicef report commented that programs by the Coptic Evangelical Organisation of Social Services resulted in 50 villages abandoning the practice in 2009. The report also notes that the subject of FGC has ceased to be a taboo and is now widely discussed by men and women especially in younger generations.

A quarter of women in Yemen are cut

Although FGC is often considered to be an ‘Africa-only’ issue, in Yemen according to the UNFPA, 24% of women ‘have been exposed to FGC’. The practice was brought to Yemen by African immigrants which explains the 96% prevalence in coastal areas. Despite this significant number of women being cut, FGC in Yemen remains an unspoken and under researched issue with much of the available data ten or more years old. A 1997 USAID study found that 97% of cutting occurred in a girl’s first month of life and that most procedures were performed in the home.

A friend of Orchid in Yemen told us that ‘illiteracy is the leading cause of the spread of FGC with illiteracy rates among women reaching 70%’ (30% among men). As in other practising communities, FGC in Yemen remains a socially entrenched custom which has become linked to religion with many women remaining uneducated and not feeling empowered enough to speak out against it.

Government’s efforts are opposed

Yemen aims to reduce FGC by 30% by 2012 but this has proved difficult to realise in such a conservative society. The government issued a ministerial decree prohibiting FGC in 2001 but quickly found this was difficult to enforce as FGC is often practised by families in secret. In 2008, the Health Ministry brought out an anti-FGC action plan containing proposed laws, codes of conduct and policies. But the Yemeni government failed to make FGC illegal in 2009 as the article proposed in the ‘safe motherhood law’ was rejected by the conservative majority who argued that the wording of the article was ‘shameful’ and that FGC was not a ‘common practice in Yemen’ and that the law was therefore unnecessary.

Attitudes are changing

However, perceptions around FGC in Yemen are changing, particularly within the younger generation who are calling for enforcement of laws and better healthcare and education around FGC. Recently the internet youth group Y-PEER broadcast anti-FGC messages from Yemen as part of its ’10 Days of Activism’.

With each of these countries driving for change, it is not surprising that the younger generation are speaking out and leading many of the efforts toward ending FGC. Perhaps the young realise that FGC is a tradition which enshrines many views which have become long outdated and no longer serve them. The move to end FGC is necessary as part of a much larger effort toward equality and protection for all