MENA leaders are failing to protect women and girls from FGM
Female genital mutilation (FGM) remains a persistent and widely underacknowledged human rights violation in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), where countries are failing to take adequate action to protect women and girls from the practice or provide survivors with access to support or legal justice.
Despite high rates in various communities and a growing body of evidence that FGM happens more widely than publicly recognised, governments are falling short on supplying reliable data and funding to address FGM, in addition to lagging behind on enacting legal prohibitions and enforcing existing laws.
At least 200 million women and girls globally have undergone FGM, according to UNICEF. This figure is based on national prevalence data available from just 31 countries where large-scale surveys have been conducted. Not included in this are various MENA countries where FGM occurs.
"The true scale of FGM in the region is far worse, and the gravity of the situation is not being accurately reflected because the scarcity of data means the number of women and girls affected is being significantly underestimated"
A joint report by Equality Now, End FGM European Network, and US Network to End FGM/C found the true scale of FGM in the region is far worse, and the gravity of the situation is not being accurately reflected because the scarcity of data means the number of women and girls affected is being significantly underestimated.
This is enabling authorities to avoid acknowledging or addressing the problem, resulting in unacceptable shortfalls in action and funding by reluctant governments.
What is FGM?
FGM involves the partial or complete removal of external female genitalia for non-medical reasons. It is not recommended in any religious texts, has no health benefits, and can cause serious lifelong physical and psychological harm.
Rooted in deeply entrenched gender inequality and the desire to control women's sexuality, FGM is commonly underpinned by harmful myths and misconceptions about what constitutes appropriate sexual behaviour, cleanliness, and the importance of maintaining virginity before marriage and fidelity after.
FGM often reduces a woman's sexual pleasure and is seen as a tool to help her resist "illicit" sexual acts. For some, it is used as a rite of passage into womanhood and a precursor to child marriage.
In-depth - 'More than 4.1 million girls and women are at risk of undergoing female genital mutilation in 2020' writes Gaia Caramazza https://t.co/fDlBoNbd4R— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) July 12, 2020
MENA countries where FGM is widely practiced include Sudan, where the rate is 86.6%, and Egypt, where it stands around 87.2%. For Yemen, data from a nationally representative survey puts the prevalence at 18.5%.
However, small-scale studies, anecdotal evidence, and media reports reveal FGM is also taking place in Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), with extremely high proportions of women and girls being cut in some groups surveyed.
Recent research by academics and activists has shed more light. In Iran, the organisation Stop FGM Iran uncovered FGM rates ranging from 16% to as high as 83% in practicing communities, and there remain many uninvestigated groups.
An independent study entitled Placing Oman on the Map found over nine in ten women had experienced FGM in the Al-Dakhiliya province and almost four in five in the capital Muscat. Meanwhile, a study in the UAE, where previous research was scarce, revealed out of 831 women questioned in Abu Dhabi, four out of ten had undergone FGM.
Governments are failing to take action to end FGM
The growing weight of evidence demonstrates the urgent need to accelerate efforts to end FGM. Every day, girls are being subjected to the traumatising practice without anywhere to turn for protection and no access to support or legal recourse in the aftermath.
Only five MENA countries have anti-FGM laws, namely Egypt, Oman, Sudan, Yemen, and Iraq, where anti-FGM legislation only applies to the Kurdistan region. Of these, all apart from Oman have provide nationally representative data on FGM that shows that despite its illegality, FGM continues to be widely practiced.
Countries making little efforts to end this harmful practice include Iran, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. None have specific laws prohibiting FGM, and this coincides with a lack of large-scale data. Only smaller studies and anecdotal evidence are available, making it difficult for activists and civil society to pressure governments to pass legislation or commit resources towards combating this harmful practice.
FGM is conducted both by native populations and migrant communities, which carry the tradition to other countries. To address this, efforts to tackle FGM need to be collective and coordinated amongst MENA countries, as well as across countries globally where it is perpetuated by some in the diaspora.
"Efforts to tackle FGM need to be collective and coordinated amongst MENA countries, as well as across countries globally where it is perpetuated by some in the diaspora"
Investing in ending FGM also makes economic sense. A WHO study identified the economic costs of treating FGM-related health complications and estimated that by 2047, this will double to an annual $US 2.1 billion worldwide.
It is vital to challenge erroneous justifications that FGM is a religious necessity. Often perceived as connected to Islam, it actually predates both Islam and Christianity, with Egyptian mummies displaying evidence in the Pharaonic period. Today in the MENA, FGM continues among some Muslim sects and certain minority populations such as Coptic Orthodox Christians in Egypt.
In both Islam and Christianity, religious scholars have explicitly condemned FGM and clarified it is not a religious requirement, with the Grand Sheikh of Cairo's Al Azhar Mosque describing FGM as 'un-Islamic'.
FGM was outlawed in Egypt in 2008, and tougher punishments were introduced in 2021.In recent years there has been a rise in reported cases and a growing awareness, creating opportunities for policymakers, legislators, religious leaders, activists, and community members to collectively pursue an end-FGM agenda.
A new study by the Tadwein Centre for Gender Studies found 86% of underprivileged women aged 18 to 35 in Egypt had undergone FGM, just 1% less than in 2014, when Egypt released its last National Health Survey.
However, some progress in shifting public opinion has been made; there has been a drop in support for FGM, with only 38.5% of women and 58% of men agreeing with its continuation. Previously, the figure was around 50% amongst women.
It's time MENA governments live up to their international human rights commitments to protect women and girls from FGM. This means acknowledging it is happening in their countries, collecting national-level data, passing laws that criminalise FGM and investing resources in prevention and protection.
To end FGM, holistic, multi-sectoral action plans are required, including a widespread awareness-raising programs that help communities to abandon FGM as a serious human rights violation and form of violence against women and girls that must end.
Paleki Ayang is a Program Officer at Equality Now implementing programs in the Middle East and North Africa, mostly on family law. She also works on advocacy around ending FGM, sexual and gender-based violence and political participation in Palestine, Egypt and Sudan.
Follow her on Twitter: @PalekiAyang
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