Introduction

The Covid-19 pandemic is adversely affecting people in diverse regions of the world, especially those in vulnerable situations such as young girls and women. The pandemic is also hampering efforts to rein in the violation of reproductive rights, including the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM).

Covid-19 hit Egypt in February 2020, and a month later in March the authorities announced a partial lockdown of the country. The government closed workplaces and schools and imposed an evening curfew. By June 2020, official sources put the total number of cases as approaching 50,000 with an increased number of deaths and new cases being recorded daily. Authorities then requested that work and education be conducted online, and that people stay at home.1Nagla Rizk, “Vulnerabilities Exposed: COVID-19 and Informal Livelihoods in Egypt,” The Open African Innovation Research Partnership, August 3, 2020, https://openair.africa/vulnerabilities-exposed-covid-19-and-informal-livelihoods-in-egypt/.

The pandemic and attendant preventive measures have had adverse socioeconomic ramifications within the country. It has hit the tourism sector particularly hard, causing an estimated loss of about 2.7 million jobs between April and June 2020. Other sectors of the economy such as manufacturing, transport, food processing, and construction suffered similar losses.

The already vulnerable status of Egypt’s five million informal sector workers has worsened due to the pandemic.2“Egypt’s GDP Grows despite Pandemic, but So Does Poverty,” France 24, November 8, 2020, https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20201108-egypt-s-gdp-grows-despite-pandemic-but-so-does-poverty. Covid-19 has endangered livelihoods in this sector by causing informal workers to lose their jobs. Also due to fears of infection, informal workers such as drivers, domestic workers, carpenters, technicians, and maintenance workers have been denied workplace jobs by traditional employers.3Rizk, “Vulnerabilities Exposed.” It is important to note that the pandemic has also resulted in the deepening of preexisting gender inequalities, as women and girls have been disproportionately affected. Of note is the increased subjection of women and girls to the harmful practice of FGM.

FGM leads to long-term physical consequences such as increased risk of HIV transmission and stillbirths. Medical complications include the high risk of infection, infertility, and death. Other long-term psychological consequences include losing trust in caregivers, depression, and anxiety.4“What Is Female Genital Mutilation? 7 Questions Answered,” UNICEF, March 4, 2019, https://www.unicef.org/stories/what-you-need-know-about-female-genital-mutilation.

More than 200 million women have been subjected to FGM in thirty countries in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa.5“Prevalence of Female Genital Mutilation,” World Health Organization, accessed July 2, 2020, https://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/topics/fgm/prevalence/en/. Not only is FGM a form of gender-based violence, it also violates medical ethics and women’s rights and leads to long-term consequences physically, psychologically, and socially.6Henrietta Fore, Natalia Kanem, and Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, “Take Action to Eliminate Female Genital Mutilation by 2030,” UNICEF, February 5, 2019, https://www.unicef.org/press-releases/take-action-eliminate-female-genital-mutilation-2030.

Covid-19, Gender Inequalities, and FGM in Egypt

The outbreak of Covid-19 in Egypt has revealed the deep-rooted effects of discrimination, violence, and repression experienced by girls and women.7Nihal Samir, “COVID-19 Threatens Reversal of Women’s Rights, Opportunities,” Daily News Egypt, July 21, 2020, https://dailynewsegypt.com/2020/07/21/covid-19-threatens-reversal-of-womens-rights-opportunities/. It has also exposed the reality that more efforts still need to be put into overcoming the violation of gender rights—in this case, eliminating the practice of FGM in Egypt and around the world.8Kate Hodal, “Why Coronavirus Has Placed Millions More Girls at Risk of FGM,” The Guardian, June 16, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/jun/16/coronavirus-millions-more-girls-risk-fgm.

According to a 2019 UNICEF report, seven out of ten Egyptian women aged fifteen to nineteen and nine out of ten among married women aged fifteen to forty-nine have undergone FGM. More than seven million girls in Egypt are at risk of being exposed to FGM between 2015 and 2030.9“Female Genital Mutilation (FGM),” UNICEF Egypt Data Snapshot – Issue 2, June 2019, https://www.unicef.org/egypt/media/5311/file/FGM%20(English).pdf. Egypt was ranked sixth out of twenty-nine countries in terms of FGM prevalence according to a 2016 UNICEF report.10Rasha Geddah, “Alarm over FGM,” Ahram Online, June 16, 2020, http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/50/1209/372281/AlAhram-Weekly/Focus/Alarm-over-FGM.aspx. Studies by UNICEF in 2014 showed that FGM is more common in Egypt’s rural areas, affecting 91 percent of females within the age group of 15-49 years. Over 80 percent of these females are from the age group of zero to fifteen.11Menna Saad, “Female Genital Mutilation Is Declared Religiously Forbidden in Islam,” Egypt Today, May 31 , 2018, https://www.egypttoday.com/Article/1/51304/Female-Genital-Mutilation-is-declared-religiously-forbidden-in-Islam. The practice of FGM has been mostly concentrated in Upper and rural Egypt.12Geddah, “Alarm over FGM.”

As noted earlier, the partial lockdown and the imposition of Covid-19 preventive measures, such as closing of schools, staying indoors, and the practicing of social distancing, have rendered young girls and women more isolated, vulnerable, and susceptible to being subjected to FGM. When schools are in session, they are a safer environment for girls compared to being at home for long periods, as this may be considered an opportunity by some parents to subject their young daughters to FGM.13Robin Kennedy, “COVID-19 Is Directly Increasing the Risk of Female Genital Mutilation,” The McGill International Review, October 27, 2020, https://www.mironline.ca/covid-19-is-directly-increasing-the-risk-of-female-genital-mutilation/. Also, the prolonged closure of schools increases the likelihood that FGM will not be noticed if it is secretly performed. The confinement of young girls indoors provides a cover for the time it takes for the wounds of victims to completely heal. It can also be argued that some parents are unaware of the consequences of their actions, due to the silence around this harmful practice. Others may feel pressured to engage in the practice due to adverse socioeconomic conditions in the country. That is, some families subject their daughters to FGM as a strategy to prevent or reduce poverty by marrying them off early.14 Hodal, “Why Coronavirus.”

Due to the government’s advice to not visit hospitals unless absolutely necessary, as it is safer for people to stay at home, all hospitals’ resources and staff are currently focused on dealing with Covid-19 cases, with little or no time and space for FGM victims. In one unfortunate case, an unscrupulous father tricked his three daughters, all less than eighteen years old, by inviting a medical doctor to their house under the guise of receiving the Covid-19 vaccination, who drugged them and carried out FGM on the girls.15“FGM: Egyptian Father ‘Used Coronavirus Lie to Trick Daughters’ into Procedure,” BBC News, June 5, 2020,  https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-52922079. However, the response of the National Committee for the Eradication of FGM to the aforementioned incident was timely, and the three girls were provided with legal and psychosocial support.16“The United Nations in Egypt Supports National Accelerated Efforts to Eradicate FGM,” UNICEF, June 15 , 2020, https://www.unicef.org/egypt/press-releases/united-nations-egypt-supports-national-accelerated-efforts-eradicate-fgm. Egypt’s prosecutor-general referred both the doctor and the father of the three girls to criminal court.17“Doctor, Father of Three Referred to Criminal Court in FGM Case,” Ahram Online, June 3 , 2020, http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/1/64/370474/Egypt/Politics-/Doctor,-father-of-three-referred-to-criminal-court.aspx

The overwhelming attention dedicated to curbing the Covid-19 pandemic has also partly contributed to the overlooking of harmful traditional practices such as FGM. In this regard, women and girls lack the protection and support they need when faced with increased FGM practices.18“Awareness Campaign to Stop Gender-Based Violence during COVID-19,” Plan International, accessed December 8, 2020, https://plan-international.org/egypt/awareness-campaign-stop-gender-based-violence-during-covid-19. The implication of this trend stands out in sharp relief when we consider that the practice of FGM is a clear violation of the reproductive rights of girls and women that has not received adequate attention and resources,19Hodal, “Why Coronavirus.” in spite of the efforts of government, professional, and civil society organizations in the country.

FGM in Egypt: The Quest for Its Elimination and Challenges

Although FGM was banned in Egypt in 2007 and became punishable by law in 2008, several physicians still engage in this harmful practice, while others do not fear punishment as they see other physicians practicing FGM without consequence.20Sarah Ghattass, Nahla Abdel-Tawab, and Salma Abou Hussein, Ending The Medicalization of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting In Egypt, Policy Brief (Cairo: Population Council, 2016). According to the General Federation of Civil Society Organizations, a union of Egyptian NGOs, 70 percent of FGM operations are believed to be performed by medical association members who go unpunished, while in parts of rural Egypt, FGM is sometimes performed by local barbers. As these operations are done in secret, the doctors who carry them out are hard for authorities to track down.21Hassan Abdel Zaher, “In Egypt, Female Genital Mutilation Is Still Rampant,” The Arab Weekly, February 11, 2018, https://thearabweekly.com/egypt-female-genital-mutilation-still-rampant.

Despite the fact that FGM has been declared illegal since 2008, some families continue to force their daughters to undergo FGM, which is considered proof of sexual purity, in order to promote social and financial stability through marriage, while purportedly restraining sexual promiscuity.22Hodal, “Why Coronavirus.” Other reasons for practicing FGM include religious misconceptions, cultural beliefs, and the nonenforcement of laws banning it. Apart from this, the practice of FGM has also been medicalized in Egypt.23Geddah, “Alarm over FGM.” According to the rapporteur of the National Population Council, Egypt ranks first globally in the medicalization of FGM.24Mira Maged, “Egypt Ranks First Globally in FGM Medicalization,” Egypt Independent, March 4, 2019, https://egyptindependent.com/egypt-ranks-first-globally-in-fgm-medicalization/. According to Egypt’s 2014 Demographic and Health Survey, medical personnel performed FGM on eight out of ten Egyptian girls who have undergone the procedure.25Geddah, “Alarm over FGM.”

Several efforts have been made by the Egyptian authorities to end the practice of FGM in the country. Since 2000, the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM), with the support of several development partners including the European Union (EU), the United Nations (UN), Al-Azhar Mosque, and the Coptic Church, has been working to address the issue. The NCCM launched the Child Helpline in 2005 to receive calls related to FGM incidents. An amendment was added to the Egyptian Penal Code and included in the 2008 Child Law criminalizing FGM. It was later amended in 2016 to impose tougher penalties on FGM perpetrators, including victims’ parents.26Angele Reda, Madeleine Nader, and Samia Ayad, “Egypt Takes Battle against FGM to New Level,” Watani, September 14, 2019, http://en.wataninet.com/features/women/egypt-takes-battle-against-fgm-to-new-level/30592/. In 2019, the National Council for Women (NCW) and the NCCM launched the Egyptian National Committee for the Elimination of FGM.27“Egypt to Propose New Strict Penalties for Female Genital Mutilation,” Egyptian Streets, February 22, 2020, https://egyptianstreets.com/2020/02/22/egypt-to-propose-new-penalties-for-female-genital-mutilation/. In addition, an awareness campaign, Protect Her against FGM, was initiated on June 14, 2019.

In accordance with Egypt’s Vision 2030 agenda, the NCW prepared a National Strategy for the Empowerment of Egyptian Women that was ratified by President Sisi and included several provisions related to women’s rights in general, and specifically the FGM issue.28Reda, Nader, and Ayad, “Egypt Takes Battle.” Plan International Egypt, which is an active member in the National Committee for the Eradication of FGM, launched an online awareness video on June 14, 2020, that engaged influential figures aimed at promoting the elimination of FGM.29Plan International, “Awareness Campaign.” A draft law was finalized by the NCW in 2020 on the International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM in Egypt to tighten FGM penalties.30“NCW Finalises Draft Law to Toughen FGM Penalties: Council Chief,” Daily News Egypt, June 13, 2020. https://dailynewsegypt.com/2020/06/13/ncw-finalises-draft-law-to-toughen-fgm-penalties-council-chief/. The UN and its agencies are working closely with the Egyptian government to eliminate FGM and recognize the efforts of the National Committee for the Eradication of FGM and the progress achieved.31UNICEF, “The United Nations in Egypt.”

On January 2021, Egypt’s government approved amendments to the anti-FGM law that included increasing the jail sentence for convicted offenders from seven years up to twenty years.32Menna Farouk, “Egypt’s Cabinet Toughens Law Banning Female Genital Mutilation,” Reuters, January 21, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/article/egypt-women-law/egypts-cabinet-toughens-law-banning-female-genital-mutilation-idUSL8N2JW26Z.  Article 171 of the amendment also specifies that any doctor or nurse practitioner found guilty of performing FGM shall be imprisoned with hard labor for no less than ten years if the procedure results in a permanent disability, and hard labor for no less than 15 years if it results in death. The guilty party shall also be suspended from his/her position for no more than five years, and the private facility in which the FGM procedure was performed shall be closed for no more than five years. In cases where the facility is licensed, the period of closure is equal to the suspension period for a nurse or medical doctor convicted for performing FGM. In this regard, medical doctors are no longer able to hide behind their white coats or justify their crimes through misleading information.33Khaled Montaser, “The End of the Female Genital Mutilation: A Victory for Egyptian Women,” Al Arabiya News, January 24, 2021, https://english.alarabiya.net/in-translation/2021/01/24/The-end-of-the-female-genital-mutilation-A-victory-for-Egyptian-women.

The partnership between the Egyptian government and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) equips young women and girls and their families in Upper Egypt with key economic and social skills through community awareness programs. The partnership also provides services and codified protection to girls who survive FGM and girls at risk of FGM by strengthening legal and policy frameworks and by building the capacities of members of Egypt’s child protection and social services, as well as the judiciary. Civil society and the governorates of Sohag, Asyut, Qena, and Aswan partner with child protection services at the household level in monitoring the pandemic’s socioeconomic effects on access to educational services and public health, household livelihoods, and the protection of girls and women.34“Activity Fact Sheet: Creating an Enabling Environment for Adolescent Girls,” USAID Egypt, July 2020, https://www.usaid.gov/sites/default/files/documents/USAIDEgypt_DG-UNICEF_2020_EN.pdf.

Conclusion

Despite all these efforts to eliminate FGM in Egypt, progress continues to be hindered by lack of strict implementation of laws, gender inequalities, and certain cultural beliefs, and the Covid-19 pandemic has only further complicated the situation. However, the drive toward eliminating FGM must continue. With the increased vulnerability of girls and women, especially in rural areas, women and girls in all governorates should be supported and their reproductive health rights protected. More human and financial resources should be mobilized to eliminate FGM, and this drive should be integrated into Covid-19 response plans whether at the governmental level or at the organizational/institutional level. Protection services for young girls who are FGM victims should be recognized as crucial, and guarantees should be put in place to ensure that when observing social distancing/lockdowns to reduce the spread of Covid-19, these girls should have immediate and nondiscriminatory access to all health-care services.

Since social distancing is required to prevent the spread of Covid-19, awareness campaigns against FGM practices that address its long-term consequences and portray it as a clear violation of human rights should be regularly broadcast on television and radio to reach all communities across the country. This will go a long way in educating citizens and community leaders as to the ways the Covid-19 pandemic has aggravated risk factors for FGM.

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