Al-Ahram Weekly Online   26 June - 2 July 2003
Issue No. 644
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Putting down the scalpel

A Cairo conference on how to prevent female circumcision concluded that it takes more than a law to stop the physical violation of girls. Dina Ezzat and Dahlia Hammouda attended

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Mrs Mubarak addressing the conference on Saturday
"The prevention and abolishment of female genital mutilation (FGM) can be achieved only through a comprehensive approach, promoting behaviour change and using legislative measures as a pivotal tool," said the declaration of a conference held in Cairo this week on the legal tools required to combat the practice of female circumcision.

Mrs Suzanne Mubarak chaired the three-day Afro-Arab Expert Consultation on "Legal Tools for the Prevention of Female Genital Mutilation". The conference, which brought together representatives from 28 Arab and African countries on Saturday, was organised by the Italian Association for Women in Development, No Peace Without Justice and the Egyptian National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM). It was supported by a number of organisations, including the European Commission and the UN Development Programme.

Attending the opening session were the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, a representative of Pope Shenouda III, the chair of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, Jaap Doek, and member of the European Parliament, Emma Bonino.

Mrs Suzanne Mubarak, who heads the technical consultative committee of the NCCM, said that female circumcision is part of a larger issue, which is human rights.

"We have to concede that it is a problematic social issue that is sensitive and very private, since it affects the psychological and physical well- being of innocent and very young girls," Mrs Mubarak said.

At a time when we are espousing the value of investing in humanbeings and speaking about people being the true wealth of nations, it is unacceptable that women's humanity be violated with impunity, she said. "It is totally unacceptable to subjugate such small girls in this way, whether intentionally or unintentionally, and to force them to go through this cruel experience," Mrs Mubarak said. "What is even more painful is that this is happening because of inherited social traditions and not any just health or social reasons, or any proper religious rulings. It is happening under the pretext of love and protection on the part of parents for their daughters."

Mrs Mubarak listed the four main pillars upon which Egypt's national project to address FGM is based. First, promoting the role of legislation in banning FGM. Second comes the role of education and raising social awareness of the problem, which will rely on revitalising the role of informal leaders within villages and communities to disseminate knowledge on the issue. Third, boosting the role of the media in spreading understanding of children's rights and expanding the scope and impact of the current successful media outreach programme. Finally, enhancing the capacities of local NGOs and providing them with the necessary tools for advocacy and campaigning against FGM.

For three days, conference participants debated answers to key questions on the legal aspects of the practice that affects some 130 to 140 million women around the world: what kinds of laws are required to combat FC/FGM? Could there be laws to actually encourage prevention of the practice, rather than just punish the perpetrators? And, what kinds of penalties should be imposed? But the most important question of all was: would the adoption of legal measures actually stop the practice?

Participants unanimously agreed that laws are required to penalise and encourage, but they are insufficient, by themselves, to prohibit. Speakers addressing the conference included representatives of 15 countries that have adopted anti- FC/FGM laws. Those, like representatives of the other 13 countries with no direct laws on the issue, agreed that for a practice that many perceive is related to women's chastity, either by assumed social mores or religious notions, the passing of a preventive law could simply mean its turning into "another abortion" -- expensive and unsafe.

"Let us face it. The excision of women is only a part of an overall effort to oppress them. We live in patriarchal societies where women are subject to oppression and, consequently, to excision among other bodily or emotionally harmful practices," commented one anti-FC/FGM activist from Burkina Faso. "What we need is to negotiate a new social order, not just new laws. What is required is to convince the entire society and to secure the political will of governments. What is the point of a law if the police does not act to arrest a doctor who carries out the operation?"

Similar views were expressed by activists who work with African communities in some Western countries where laws are very clear in incriminating the practice. In the words of one, "What happens is that a father would work very hard throughout the year to send his daughter for circumcision back home and bring her back, in order to evade the law. Even illegal immigrants, who are risking not being let back in, still do this."

In many societies, activists said, women would pursue excision as consenting adults to make themselves more valuable in the marriage market and more appreciated in their societies. "They argue that it is a cosmetic surgery that makes women more appealing to men," commented a male Mauritanian activist. "And, sometimes, this is simply the case."

Long time anti-FC/FGM activist Nahid Tubia summed it up. "You cannot force people to change. You have to make them want to change."

Getting people to want to change is not an easy matter. Indeed, as participants agreed, it could be done with the help of legislation, but would also require the adoption of the right attitude on the part of the media, religious leaders and civil society. Moreover, governments should not hasten to adopt laws without securing the necessary public support for them. A law is not going to be recognised by anyone, neither parents nor licensed and un-licensed practitioners, activists said, if religious leaders insist that women have to be circumcised.

For his part, Sheikh of Al-Azhar Tantawi said that such a religious stipulation does not exist.

The governments of all participating 28 countries are already committed to international obligations and campaigns to prevent FGM, such as the programme of action of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Stop FGM campaign. "So, it is not like we are not legally bound to stop it," commented one activist from Kenya.

The level of prevalence of FGM in the countries participating in the conference varied from over 90 per cent in Egypt and Sudan, to nearly 10 per cent in Mauritania, Tanzania and Yemen, and under 10 per cent in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Countries in the three categories all have laws that either directly or indirectly ban the practice.

"Some might think that we do not have a law to prohibit FC/FGM, but we do," said Aziza Hussein, a long-time anti FC/FGM activist in Egypt and chairperson of the Egyptian Society for the Prevention of Harmful Practices Against Girls. "Articles 241 and 242 of the penal code penalises anyone involved in inflicting deliberate bodily injury on anyone. What we need is to get society to abide by this law."

The legal struggle against FGM in Egypt provides an interesting example of how important societal consent is. With much lobbying from concerned NGOs and in the wake of the 1994 Cairo ICPD meeting, the Egyptian government began taking action against the practice. At the time, a law was presented to parliament that legally prohibited the practice, but was prevented from passing by the vast majority of MPs in what was described at the time as "a unique case where almost all political forces came together." Then, in 1996, the Ministry of Health passed a decree banning all doctors, state-run hospitals and medical centres from performing the procedure. After a group of doctors and lawyers won a legal appeal against the decree, it was over-ruled by the Administrative Court. In 1997, the Higher Administrative Court passed the decree again. This said, the practice is still very much prevalent.

"But today, with the clear and courageous support offered to us by Mrs Mubarak, I am sure our efforts will gain new momentum," said Mary Assaad, coordinator of the Egyptian Anti-FGM Task Force and a long-time activist in the field.

Egypt has recently declared 2003 as "The Year of the Girl Child" and combating FC/FGM figures high on the Egyptian government's agenda for this year. State-run TV and government-run medical centres are already part of a dedicated campaign that advises against the practice.

However, perseverance is now key, according to Hussein. "Change is not going to happen soon, but work has to be hard and systematic," the veteran activist said.

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