My Sister, My Heroine
Yasmeen is forever grateful for her sister Aya for saving her from FGM
In the past, there was a stereotype in children's stories of a pretty girl in danger who can only be saved by the handsome prince. It was a reflection of the reality that women and girls did not have the opportunity to express themselves, explore their full potential, be independent and make their own decisions regarding their own life and future.
Now, things are different. The change is even reflected in the narratives of many motion pictures that feature female heroines who save themselves and their loved ones.
Empowering and protecting girls against violence is a key mandate for UNICEF. Among the most widespread forms of violence in Upper Egypt is Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). UNICEF has been supporting national efforts to combat FGM since 2003 in collaboration with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) through the “Joint Programme on Eliminating Female Genital Mutilation: Accelerating Change to end FGM”. Currently, the list of donors of this programme include Austria, EU, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom.
In addition, UNICEF has ongoing partnerships with USAID, through the project “Creating an Enabling Environment for Adolescent Girls in Egypt” (2018-2021) that address issues related to FGM and the protection and empowerment of girls at risk.
In this photo essay, we reveal the story of a heroine from the heart of conservative Upper Egypt who protected her younger sister from one of the worst forms of gender-based violence, and contributes to educating the people and protecting girls at her village.
Yasmine goes to school in the morning. On her way back, she passes by the land her family owns, where she serves “lunch” to the animals.
Perhaps the only thing that disturbs this quiet life is a haunting frightening memory carved in her mind since she was a seven-year-old girl, the day her older sister Aya was cut.
Aya's mother insisted on cutting her when she was only 10 years old at home by a midwife. When a girl undergoes FGM at home, parents try to keep her younger sisters in another room so they don't see what's happening to their older sister. Nevertheless, this doesn't usually prevent the screaming from reaching the other room. "Yasmine was young at the time,” Aya recalls, “but she remembers what I had been through because of my screaming and my family's anxiety after the bleeding that followed."
Data combining the Egypt Demographic and Health Survey 2014 and population estimates from CAPMAS show that out of 8.5 million girls aged 5-14, 1.6 million underwent FGM and 3.1 million girls may be at risk because of their mothers' intention to cut them in the future.
Undergoing a surgery without medical guidelines such as FGM, Aya suffered a life-threatening hemorrhage like many girls. On such suffering, she based her argument to persuade her family not to cut her younger sister Yasmine. It wasn't, though, an easy battle: "When it was Yasmine’s turn, I stood up against my mother and reminded her of what happened to me. I told her that Yasmine is weaker and could die. For two years, she listened to me until the other women started blaming her that she didn't cut her yet. My mother reconsidered, and I used a religious argument this time to explain to her that FGM is not supported by Islam. I took a stand not for Yasmine only, but for every other girl."
While working at the pharmacy, Aya witnesses many cases of bleeding due to FGM. She tries to educate parents who come to buy drugs and medical supplies to refrain from repeating this crime with their other daughters. "Some people learn the hard lesson from what happens with their eldest daughters” Aya says.
Yasmine is not yet sure how her life will go in the future. She wishes that the farm and her animals would always be part of her life regardless of its course. She looks up to her older sister who graduated school, got a job and gained the power to express opinions and protect others. "I’d like to follow the steps of my sister, finish high school and get a job. I want to work even after I get married and have kids" she says.
Aya and Yasmine attend seminars held by the Association for Children and Development in Assiut (ACDA), an NGO that has been collaborating with UNICEF for years to combat FGM in 76 villages in six regions of Asyut. Such partnership was the cornerstone of mobilizing society and supporting social change against FGM, namely the growing numbers of families that openly declare their abandonment of FGM.
To build on the courage of girls such as Aya and Yasmine who declare their objection of FGM, ACDA trains influential youth groups to communicate with families in their villages, educate them and support girls at risk.