More women have undergone FGM in Egypt than anywhere else in the world
92% of married women aged 15 to 49 have had the procedure
Anti-FGM campaigners believe they're turning the tide on the practice
Summer days: They’re what childhood memories are made of, glorious afternoons of unchecked freedom to frolic with friends in the sun, unshackled from the earthly obligations of a math class that never seemed further away.
But for millions of schoolgirls in Egypt, this time of year represents something much darker: the start of the female genital mutilation (FGM) season.
Mona Mohamed was 10 years old when she underwent what’s also known as a female circumcision on a hot summer day in her village in Upper Egypt.
“I was terrified,” she said. “They tied me down, my mother on one hand and my grandmother on the other.”
As Mona thrashed around, pinned by her loved ones to the living room floor, a doctor injected her with anesthesia.
Mona remembers being given a piece of bubble gum to chew on before she finally passed out. It wasn’t until she woke up that she realized she had been mutilated.
Egypt: The FGM capital of the world
Stories like Mona’s are far from rare in Egypt, where “cutting” has been a brutal rite of passage for young girls since the time of the pharaohs.
Of the more than 125 million girls and women alive today who have undergone the procedure, one in four live in Egypt. That’s more than any other country in the world, according to the U.N.
Ninety-two percent of married Egyptian women aged 15 to 49 have been subjected to FGM, according to a government report released in May. That figure is down from 97% in 2000, but the practice is still the norm here.
Most girls are cut between the ages of nine and 12, and the operations usually take place during the summer school break so the girls can recover at home.
U.N. officials say FGM has no medical benefits and can cause lifelong physical and emotional trauma for the women forced to undergo the procedure.
“This is a gross human rights violation,” Jaime Nadal-Roig, the U.N. Population Fund representative in Cairo, told CNN. “It doesn’t add anything to the life of the girl, and there are no medical or religious grounds whatsoever.”
A celebrated tradition
The most common FGM procedure in Egypt is Type 1, the partial or full removal of the clitoris. It’s what Mona Mohamed – and her older sisters – endured years ago.
Compared to her sisters, Mona was lucky, given that her procedure was performed by a doctor. Her sisters were circumcised with a razor blade by a traditional (non-medical) midwife who put dust on their wounds to stop the bleeding.
Mona, now 47, recalls asking her mother why getting circumcised was so important. “Usually girls at your age get ‘excited,’ and this operation takes care of that,” her mother replied.
FGM has been illegal in Egypt since 2008, but the practice remains woven into the very fabric of Egyptian society, where many see cutting as a way to “purify” a girl and make her marriage material.
“People used to have a party after a girl was circumcised, they’d celebrate and exchange gifts,” Nadal-Roig said. “So for them to turn from there and say, ‘look this is a crime or this is a sin or this is not allowed by religion’ means confronting a lot of beliefs and social norms.”
Campaigners go on the offensive
But progress is being made. The percentage of girls aged 15 to 17 who have had the procedure has dropped from 74.4% in 2008 to 61% in 2014 – a clear sign that the drive to end FGM is working, campaigners say.
Last week Egypt announced a plan to reduce FGM by 10-15% in the next five years. If it works, it will mean that for the first time in decades, “uncut” girls would outnumber those who have had the procedure.
“It’s an ambitious plan, but now I think that the political atmosphere is supporting us and we can reach our goal,” said Vivian Fouad, the National Population Council official leading the government’s charge to eradicate FGM.
“For years we were on (the) defense, but now we’re on the offensive.”
The fight to eradicate FGM in Egypt is unfolding on a number of fronts, from the courts to the places of worship to the streets of the highest-risk towns.
In January a doctor was sentenced on charges related to mutilating a girl – the first conviction of its kind since the 2008 ban went into effect.
The verdict was a victory for the anti-FGM campaign, but Fouad says too many doctors are still willing to take the money from families and look the other way when it comes to the law.
“It’s a good income for doctors,” Fouad said. “And some doctors have social and cultural backgrounds where FGM is supported.”
Fouad classifies the battle against female circumcision as a fight for the middle class: “If doctors, judges, prosecutors, and teachers are supporting FGM, how are we going to convince poorer women not to have it?”
Campaigners are also trying to persuade local religious leaders to stop preaching the alleged benefits of FGM to mothers. It’s often a tough sell in a country where more than half of women still believe, falsely, that cutting is required by religion, according to the most recent survey.
“You need to make people not want to do it for their daughters,” said UNFPA program officer Germain Haddad. “You need to work on people’s convictions.”
To that end, the UNFPA has hired a theater group to perform comedic skits in the streets of communities across the country to foster debate – and doubt – about the necessity of FGM.
“Many of these people are shy,” said Haddad. “When we used to do seminars on FGM it was very difficult to get people to speak up and ask questions.
“These plays act as an icebreaker that opens up the subject like magic,” she said. “And women get to see in a comedic way that FGM is ridiculous.”
“I hate the man that did this to me”
But it remains an uphill struggle. Around six in 10 women think the practice should continue, according to the most recent government survey.
“It’s tradition, and there’s no escape,” says Sarah Abulaziz Mohamed, who was circumcised at 12 in her village of Mansour.
“It hurt my dignity – I was forced to do this act that I didn’t want to do,” she said. “I hate the man that did this to me.”
Sarah is 40 now and has two young daughters of her own. She says FGM left her with lifelong psychological trauma, but at least it taught her a valuable lesson.
“I definitely wouldn’t do it to my daughters by any means,” she said. “To this day I still have pain, and what’s gone is gone … that part of me can never be given back again.”