The world celebrated the International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM on Monday. It is a day meant to display our collective resistance to the crime of female genital mutilation (FGM), which is in the sixth of February every year.
The fact is that this heinous crime still assassinates the innocence of many girls, casting its long shadow over developing nations. This crime requires more than criminalisation and developed legislation.
From a historical angle, until 2007 there was no real legislation that criminalised FGM, which contributed to the dramatic spread of FGM. Some agencies have estimated that FGM rates in Egpt could be as high as 90%.
In 2007, the Minister of Health issued decision No. 271 banning the practice of FGM.
The legislative criminalisation of FGM started in 2008 as a result of Egypt ‘s ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The legislative amendment of Law No. 126 added a paragraph on Article 242 of the Penal Code which stipulates that perpetrators face “punishment by imprisonment of no less than three months and not exceeding two years, or a fine of not less than EGP 1,000 and not exceeding EGP 5,000 for whoever carries out the FGM surgery.”
This provision is too soft and does not outlaw FGM itself or hold other people involved responsible for it, such as the father or the mother, and it only criminalised the wound caused by FGM. The same law has been challenged before the Supreme Constitutional Court on grounds of it being unconstitutional. Despite the law being contrary to the principles of Islamic law, which is the main source of legislation in accordance with the Constitution, the Supreme Constitutional Court verdict rejected the case.
Since then, and despite the criminalisation of FGM in the Egyptian legal system, no one has been imprisoned for this crime. Some people will say that there are two famous cases of FGM taken note of by public opinion in which the accused was punished.
The first case revolves around the 13-year-old Sohier Elbatee’i from Daqahleya. She died in 2013 after her father took her to a clinic to have the operation carried out. The Misdemeanor Court acquitted both, the physician and the father, of the crime, but the prosecution appealed the ruling and the court resumed its verdict to punish the doctor. The doctor was sentenced to two years in prison, with a conviction of manslaughter, and for three months for conducting an illegal operation.
The court rejected the civil suit submitted by the National Council for Motherhood and Childhood, and the Centre for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance (CEWLA), but the doctor was only held for three months because he managed to reconcile with the victim’s father.
The second case revolves around the 17-year-old Mayar from Suez. Mayar died in 2016 as a result of an FGM operation which was carried out after she and her sister were taken to a clinic by their mother. The Suez court punished both, the mother and the doctor who conducted the surgery, and the anaesthesiologist, with a one year suspended sentence. The doctor and the anaesthesiologist were fined EGP 5,000, while the mother was fined EGP 1,000.
The only reason these two murders were in the media spotlight is because these girls died, not because of FGM.
At the end of 2016, the criminal legislation was amended again to include harsher penalties for FGM, to extend imprisonment to five to seven years. The amendments reclassified FGM from a misdemeanour to a felony, and extended the punishment to 15 years if it led to permanent disability or death. Accomplices to the act, such as those who take someone to have the operation carried out, can face one to three years imprisonment.
This direction is to ensure the criminalisation of those who escort the child to have FGM surgery. There are two points which I have mentioned already: 1) The girl is considered a victim, whether alive or dead, under the jurisdiction of the state represented by the public prosecution, which will hinder the way of any reconciliation attempts between the criminals to impunity. 2) There should be a penalty with the force of the law. Once a doctor commits FGM and receives a criminal verdict, they should have their medical licence permanently revoked and their membership in the Egyptian Medical Syndicate removed.
But legislation alone cannot end this practice. Legislation is a surgical intervention on the doctor; the most important stage is to prevent the crime from happening in the first place, which requires many actions be taken:
1) The main factor behind the prevalence of FGM is the fact that it is ritualistic, and a deeply rooted cultural practice. This should be addressed, and all links to religion should be refuted and discredited. We should not rely on statements here or there, but we should spread awareness on all levels, including mosque sermons and the media.
2) Medical outreach based on sound scientific underpinnings that explain to the public the devastating psychological and physical effects that accompany such a crime. The girl will not understand the enormity of what has happened to her, so awareness programmes must involve both the father and the mother who have a daughter—they should not receive a birth certificate for the newborn until they attend the awareness session in this regard.
3) Educate law enforcement authorities and the various state authorities; legislative, executive, and judicial authorities, on the seriousness of the effects of the crime and ways of detecting and dealing with the victims humanely and legally.
Mohamed Samir is a lecturer on political regimes and Comparative Constitutional Law. He is also a visiting professor at several American universities.