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Battling the scourge of female genital mutilation

© UNICEF Egypt/2004/Ingram
Awatef Ramadan addressing a public awareness session on FGM/C in Manfalout, upper Egypt.

By Simon Ingram

MANFALOUT, 15 September 2004 – Awatef Ramadan's first harrowing glimpse of the practice known as female genital mutilation or cutting (FGM/C) came at the age of six, when she was growing up in the southern Egyptian town of Manfalout.

“My 11-year-old elder sister was to undergo the cutting and I was among the female relatives who witnessed the event. I heard my sister scream out with pain, and then we saw that she was bleeding heavily. My mother started yelling in panic and my sister was rushed to hospital. Her life was saved but only just.”

Those terrible memories were still vivid in Awatef's mind a few years later, when she was told that it was her turn. “It was the school holidays – the traditional time for girls to undergo the cutting. The daya (village midwife) came to our home and I realized what was to happen."

Recalling her sister's ordeal, Awatef knew she could never submit to such a fate. As the daya tried to grab hold of her, Awatef kicked out, before fleeing from the house and running to the sanctuary of her aunt's home nearby.

In Upper Egypt, and indeed throughout the country, studies show that the vast majority of girls and women have suffered from some form of FGM/C. The practice – whose origins date back more than two thousand years – is widely seen by some people as a necessary step towards womanhood, and as a requirement for a girl to be accepted in marriage. FGM/C is thought to curb a girl's sexual desire, helping to keep her chaste before marriage, and faithful to her husband afterwards.

© UNICEF Egypt/2004/Ingram
Girls of Assiut, Egypt.

Girls and women who have not undergone the cutting suffer stigmatization. Awatef says she is more fortunate. Her husband accepts her for not undergoing FGM/C, and they have a very happy marriage together.

With her passionate conviction against FGM/C, Awatef was an ideal candidate to join the FGM Abandonment Programme. This programme was implemented by the Assiut Childhood and Development Association (ACDA), with the support of UNICEF. Indeed, even before the start of the programme – which focuses on eight communities in the governorate of Assiut – Awatef managed to convince her brothers and sisters not to force their daughters to undergo the cutting.

Since undergoing training with ACDA, Awatef holds discussions on the FGM/C issue with pupils at the secondary school where she teaches. She also visits private homes to meet family members in attempts to change their views on the practice. Such has been her success that some of her pupils produced a play entitled “No to FGM/C”, which was shown before a large audience in Manfalout. The play tells the story of a girl who refuses to undergo the cutting and tries to convince her parents not to subject her to the ordeal.

Public awareness sessions are another means of battling the practice. Awatef and other campaigners – including Muslim and Christian leaders – use a mixture of passion and reason to persuade their audiences that this practice must end. "I tell people that if they really love their daughters, they should take good care of them and see that they are well educated. This is something much more important to give a girl and her future husband rather than making her undergo the cutting,” says Awatef.

Awatef believes that a change is starting to take place in communities like Manfalout. “In the old days we would hear about groups of 10 or 15 girls being taken to a home and subjected to this practice one after the other.  Such things are rare nowadays."




15 September 2004: UNICEF Communication Officer Simon Ingram describes the fight against FGM in Egypt.

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