(CNN)Egypt has brought into effect an amended law that toughens penalties on those who perform female genital mutilation, a practice that reportedly affects over 90% of Egyptian women, the health ministry announced.
Egypt toughens penalties for female genital mutilation
The government this week told both state and privately-run health facilities that medics who carry out the procedure could now face up to 15 years in jail. Parents who subject their daughters to circumcision could get a three-year prison sentence.
"The prosecutor general issued a memo to all prosecutors, emphasizing the importance of investigating all FGM cases," Mayssa Shawky, the deputy health minister, told CNN on Wednesday by phone.
Before the amendment, the law defined FGM as a misdemeanour with a maximum sentence of three years in prison. It was rarely applied. Only two cases involving FGM-related deaths were referred to court since the law was issued in 2008.
In light of the recent amendments, passed in the parliament in August, FGM is now considered a felony, with a minimum penalty of five years in prison.
The World Health Organization defines FGM as "all procedures that involve the partial or total removal of external genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons."
According to the most recent government survey, the 2014 Demographic and Health Survey, 92% of women aged between 15 and 49 have been circumcised.
Police would now accompany health ministry officials during the inspection of medical facilities suspected of carrying out FGM, Shawky said, adding that judges, doctors and officials have received training on how to identify, investigate, and report the crime.
If a medic reports that a girl endured a "permanent disability" as a result of a procedure, it is easier to get a conviction and the maximum sentence when the case goes to court, Shawky said. Without the phrase "permanent disability" in the report, it is difficult to get a case moving, she added.
The 2014 Demographic and Health Survey showed that 82% of FGM cases are conducted by health workers.
There are worries that tougher laws would drive the tradition back underground.
According to Shawky, families in areas in southern Egypt -- where the practice is most prevalent -- tend to cover up deaths resulting from FGM. Human rights groups are concerned that the penalties imposed by the recent amendment will discourage families further from reporting FGM-related death.
Amel Fahmy, managing director of Tadwein Gender Research Center, told CNN, "the social component is missing" in the government efforts to combat FGM.
She said that while she believed the amendment was "good in general", it lacks the mechanism to deal with parents who approach doctors to circumcise their daughters.
"What [happens] after [doctors] report parents? Awareness? Send a social worker to talk to them? Because parents could simply go to another doctor later on," she said.
Health official Shawky said that a number of government agencies are working on ongoing awareness campaigns.
One of efforts, she said, is to explain to people that FGM is a tradition picked up from African countries across the Nile Valley -- not a religious commandment as some Muslims and Christians believe. Both sheikhs and priests have been involved in dispelling these beliefs.
Shawky said that these efforts have led to a 13% drop of FGM procedures for girls aged 15 to 17 between 2008 and 2014.