Siham, 47, remembers the day she underwent female genital mutilation (FGM) as if it were yesterday.
“It changed my life forever,” she said.
According to Siham, the physical and psychological trauma involved in the operation, an age-old practice in many places in Egypt, ultimately affected her self-esteem, her sexuality and her marriage.
“A long time ago, I decided I would never do the same thing to my daughters,” she said. “It’s a bad practice – there are no benefits.”
According to UNICEF, some 97 percent of Egyptian women who have ever been married have undergone the procedure.
FGM is prevalent in 28 countries across Africa and the Middle East. A report released on Thursday by the Florence-based UNICEF Innocenti Centre stated that three million girls are subjected to the practice across the world each year.
Traditionally, girls are 'circumscised' when they are between the ages of 10 and 14-years old, although some are subject to the operation at as young as six-years old.
The most prevalent form of FGM is excision, or the removal of all or part of the clitoris.
According to medical experts, the practice can result in severe psychological and physical injuries. Infections related to the procedure are common, and it has reportedly lead to sterility, severe menstrual pains, complications during childbirth and a reduction of sexual pleasure.
In extreme cases, women have bled to death following the operation.
Siham’s negative views on the practice, however, are far from universal. Living in the capital, Cairo, she noted that friends and neighbours generally disapproved of her decision not to have her daughters undergo the procedure.
“I still see parents taking their daughters to have them cut,” she said. “It makes me sad.”
In Egypt, FGM is more commonly practised in rural areas, where it is traditionally seen as a means of promoting female chastity. However, the practice is not uncommon even among middle class families of the capital.
Speaking in Cairo recently, Secretary-General of Egypt’s National Council for Motherhood and Childhood, Moushira Khattab, said Egypt had “come a long way” in the fight against the FGM.
Nevertheless, human rights organizations and activists continue to call for legislation banning the practice outright.
Emma Bonino, European MP and co-founder of rights group No Peace without Justice, noted that most anti-FGM campaigning was done only at the local level. She went on to out that the lack of legislation was one of the biggest impediments facing local rights bodies and activists.
“A law is needed to ban FGM,” said Bonino. “Even if it doesn’t stop the practice tomorrow, it will serve to legalise the activists.”
In contrast to some countries where the practice is common, such as Kenya, Senegal and Ghana, there are no articles of Egyptian law explicitly banning FGM.
Esmat Mansour, head of integrated health care and nursing at the Ministry of Health and Population, explained that, while laws existed forbidding the infliction of outright bodily harm, there was no legislation expressly addressing FGM.
He added that a 1996 government decree merely banned the medicalisation of the practice, meaning it can’t be officially performed in hospitals.
Bonino noted that the lack of awareness and public discussion of the subject was as big a dilemma for activists as was the absence of legislation.
“They should talk about FGM in schools nationwide,” she said, although she conceded that this was “very difficult” due to the traditional sensitivity of the issue and the lack of training on the subject among educators.
“Leadership is needed in the fight to eliminate the practice,” Bonino added. “Laws aren’t enough. What we need is international commitment and local commitment in order to really change things.”