Last Sunday, a 17-year-old Egyptian girl, Manar Moussa, died in a Suez hospital as a result of complications from a female genital mutilation (FGM) operation—and her death has reignited the country’s contentious debate about the practice.
Although FGM has been illegal in Egypt since 2008, it is still a common procedure—particularly in more rural, conservative areas of the country. And even with a national campaign to reduce the practice by 10-15 percent over the next five years, many parents still believe that the operation “purifies” girls and keeps them from being adulterous later in life.
“It gives a girl more dignity to remove [her clitoris]” Dr. Ahmed al-Mashady told the Guardian, after another doctor was charged with killing a 13-year-old girl in a botched FGM procedure.
“If your nails are dirty, don’t you cut them?”
Despite prevalent cultural assumptions about female sexuality, the recent spate of tragic deaths has pushed Egypt towards reconsidering its stance on FGM. In 2008, the procedure became criminalized after the death of 12-year-old Badour Shakour. At the time, the Egyptian parliament passed a law that criminalized FGM, stipulating a fine of up to $900 and a prison sentence of up to two years if a doctor was caught administering the procedure. However, the country has been lax in implementing this plan. Just last year, more than five years after FGM was outlawed, Dr. Raslan Fadl was the first doctor to be prosecuted on manslaughter charges in an FGM case after 13-year-old Shuair al-Bata’a died in his care.
To the surprise of many Egyptians—and the disappointment of anti-FGM campaigners, who hoped the landmark case would change the practice—Fadl was acquitted, and released with a fine.
With little oversight, the practice remains widespread—an estimated 91 percent of married Egyptian women between the ages of 15 and 49 have been subjected to some form of the practice, according to The Guardian. The deaths that occur as a result of the procedure are frequently either not reported or covered up. During his trial, Dr. Fadl repeatedly insisted that he was treating Shuair al-Bata’a for genital warts—not mutilating her—when she died. Other doctors blamed an overdose of anesthesia or an underlying health complication, such as an allergy or stroke, for killing the girls, as opposed to the blood loss from the mutilation itself.
Still, if progress could be made in eradicating female genital mutilation in Egypt, it would represent an enormous leap forward in ending the practice globally. Despite FGM being a common procedure throughout Africa and Southeast Asia, its popularity in Egypt makes that country a focal point for anti-FGM campaigners.
“If we were able to eradicate FGM in Egypt, we could get rid of one-fourth of the cases worldwide,” Jaime Nadal, the UN Population Fund’s representative in Cairo told the Guardian.
One hope for this is greater investigation into the deaths as they happen. The hospital where Manal Moussa had her operation—and died—has been closed, and, as of this writing, the two doctors who performed the operation, as well as the head of the hospital, are under investigation.