Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a widespread practice in the developing world. Which Arab countries are affected, and what are the religious and social connotations associated with the phenomenon?
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), female genital mutilation – also referred to as female genital cutting and female circumcision – includes "all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons." It is estimated that more than 200 million women worldwide are affected by FGM.
Every February 6, the United Nations (UN) celebrates the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation to raise awareness and educate the public about the dangers of the practice.
High prevalence in Horn of Africa
In the Arab World, FGM is concentrated in poorer Arab countries on the African continent: it is frequent in Somalia, Djibouti, Egypt and Sudan. According to UNICEF, Somalia has the highest prevalence of FGM of any predominantly Arab country, with an estimated 98 percent of females between 15 and 49 years having undergone the practice. In Egypt, an estimated 87 percent of girls and women 15 to 49 have also undergone FGM. Egypt has the highest population of any country in the Arab world, with 95 million people.
Among girls 0 to 14 years, Mauritania has the highest percentage of FGM practice, with 54 percent having been circumcised. Yemen then follows, with 15 percent, and Egypt afterward with 14 percent.
Historical, cultural perceptions shape practice
The reasons cited for carrying out FGM are complex. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), FGM in some communities is "associated with cultural ideals of femininity and modesty, which include the notion that girls are clean and beautiful after removal of body parts that are considered unclean, unfeminine and male." The WHO also claimed that some communities believe that the practice "reduces a woman's libido and therefore [is] believed to help her resist extramarital sexual acts."
But is the practice a cultural or religious one? "If there are religious texts that justify such violence, they must be renounced. Such very dangerous behavior can not be justified by religious texts," Khadija Ryadi, Moroccan human rights activist and former president of the Morocco Association for Human Rights, told DW. "I do not care about the religious debate, but it is important to respond to everyone who uses religious discourse to justify forms of violence against women."
Yet the consequences of the practice are dire: excruciating pain, excessive bleeding and urinary problems are among the immediate complications. Long-term consequences can include increased risk of cysts, urinary and vaginal infections, and menstrual problems; childbirth complications; recurring pain; absence of sexual pleasure and long-term psychological damage, among others.
How are Arab governments fighting FGM?
Due to increasing activism from civil society and international organizations devoted to eradicating FGM, in recent years it has been banned in Egypt, Sudan, and Djibouti. In Yemen, the practice is banned in medical facilities but not in homes. In Mauritania there are legal restrictions but not an outright ban. Meanwhile, in Iraq, the practice has been banned in the Kurdish Authonomous Region in the North but remains legal in central Iraq.
"Governments usually only enact laws to combat this phenomenon, but they can not apply them," Ryadi said. "This is because these laws require that society be prepared for them. Society can not be prepared automatically, as these are the responsibilities of governments and civil organizations. Governments must work harder to change the attitudes, customs and the inequality of women."
From advocacy to enforcement
Many observers have hailed steps taken by governments to eradicate the practice, but underline that enforcement of bans or restrictions remains a major challenge. In the case of Egypt, "the law is enforced when doctors go to jail if they carry out FGM. The enforcement is making doctors responsible for performing this act and making it illegal that they do it," Dina Mansour-Ille, a senior researcher at the UK-based Overseas Development Institute explained to DW. "The problem is that you have mothers who perform FGM at home. The only way you can find out that it happens is if the child suffered extensive bleeding and winds up in the hospital. In this case the mother might be found guilty."
However, Mansour-Ille doesn't believe the current laws in Egypt are enough to really solve the issue of FGM. "The end goal is increasing the level of education among women so that they don't do these practices on their daughters. Also educating the daughters as well is important," she said. "It is important to take aggressive practices against anyone who performs FGM. The key is education."