COVID-19 is profoundly affecting women's rights in the Middle East and North Africa, from rising male violence to job loss. But there is a less visible category that also affects women: female genital mutilation (FGM), the prevention of which has been interrupted by the pandemic.
FGM is a global epidemic that also affects the Middle East
In April, the United Nations announced that “due to the disruption of pandemic-related prevention programs, two million cases of FGM could occur over the next decade that could otherwise have been prevented.”
Female genital mutilation includes “all procedures that involve the total or partial removal of the female external genitalia, or other injuries to the female genitalia for non-medical reasons,” according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
This practice has its roots in widespread traditions, cultures and religious beliefs in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, and is usually carried out by traditional matrons or healers with knives, razors or crystals.
FGM, also known as female circumcision, is considered “one of the most extreme manifestations of violence against girls and women”. It is estimated that it affects at least 200 million women in the world.
UNICEF explains the issue in this video:
In the MENA region, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is a problem that primarily concerns Egypt, Sudan, Yemen, Iraq and Djibouti.
Carlos Javier Aguilar, Regional Adviser Child Protection, explains more.
– UNICEF MENA – يونيسف الشرق الأوسط وشمال إفريقيا (@UNICEFmena) February 7, 2020
In the MENA region, female genital mutilation (FGM) is a problem that mainly affects Egypt, Sudan, Yemen, Iraq and Djibouti.
Carlos Javier Aguilar, regional councilor for child protection, explains more.
Watch and share. 👇 Help finish FGM. 🤝
It is in Somalia where FGM prevails: it is estimated that 98% of women between 15 and 49 have suffered genital mutilation. In Djibouti, it is estimated that 93% of women are affected, in Egypt 91%, in Sudan 88%, in Mauritania 69%, in Yemen 19% and in Iraq 7%, according to the latest published figures in June by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
The practice varies within each country according to social class, ethnicity and education, with notable differences between rural and urban areas. FGM occurs more often in the poorest and least educated families in rural areas. In Yemen, FGM is concentrated in coastal regions, but is less common in the north. In Iraq, the practice remains mostly in the northern Kurdish provinces. In Egypt, the percentage is notably higher among girls living in Upper Egypt.
In Mauritania more than 90% of women from poor families have suffered FGM, compared to 37% of women from wealthy families:
MGF: Unreported rape
The scale and scope of FGM could be well above estimated figures, because according to a March joint report signed by Equality Now, End FGM European Network and US End FGM / C Network, the “official global picture of FGM is incomplete”. The report revealed “growing evidence that the ritual is also practiced in other regions, such as the Middle East and Asia,” and that “unfortunately, the world underestimates FGM.”
Studies done on small population samples have recently shown that FGM is also practiced in Iran and in Gulf states, such as Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Saudi Arabia. Equality Now's Divya Srinivasan told Reuters that she was “particularly surprised by the results of small studies done in places like Saudi Arabia and Oman, which are not usually the first ones we think of when talking about FGM.”
The report, released during the height of the COVID-19 crisis in the Middle East, has not appeared in the Arab world press nor has it been translated into Arabic, which has very little coverage of FGM. This lack of public awareness could perpetuate the perception that FGM is not a matter of concern.
In the Middle East, taboos on female bodies and sexuality avoid open and public debate on sensitive issues such as FGM, often linked to cultural, religious and traditional beliefs.
In Egypt, for example, both Christians and Muslims believe that “girls' circumcision keeps them from vice and makes them more attractive to future husbands. Mothers fear that their daughters may not marry if they have not been mutilated, ”according to a report by Stop FGM Middle East, a campaign created in 2013 to raise awareness about FGM, which aims to“ spread the message of FGM not only exists in Africa, but also in many countries in the Middle East and Asia. ” The organization is pushing for more FGM data to be collected, and has created a monitoring tool to help individuals and groups that have created small-scale surveys of FGM.
Unless there is some critical incident that makes headlines – such as the 12-year-old girl's death from FGM-related in southern Egypt in February – the issue tends to be avoided.
Ghida Hussein, an Egyptian student investigating FGM, told Global Voices:
As we don’t talk about it, it is as if the problem doesn’t exist. FGM is often practiced silently behind closed doors. It is happening far from the more educated urban centers of power where activists and politicians are seated. FGM is a controversial sensitive issue and unless there is international attention and funding, it is not seen locally as a priority by an overwhelming male political class.
Since we don't talk about it, it's as if the problem doesn't exist. FGM is often practiced silently and behind closed doors. It happens far from the most educated urban centers of power, where activists and politicians are located. FGM is a controversial and sensitive issue, and unless there is international attention and funding, the largely male political class does not see it as a priority.
Breaking the taboo and talking about FGM can expose human rights defenders and victims to verbal assault and strong negative reactions.
In Oman, women's rights activist Habiba al Hinai, founder of the Omani Association for Human Rights, carried out a survey in 2017, finding that 78% of women have suffered mutilation.
After posting his discoveries online, Habiba received attacks and threats:
I posted my results online and the response was huge. I was attacked by religious conservatives who say female circumcision is a form of Islamic worship.
I posted my results online and the response was huge. I was attacked by religious conservatives who say circumcision in a form of Islamic veneration.
In Oman, where FGM is not officially recognized, there is no protection or support for victims. Habiba added in the report:
How can you ask a survivor to speak out against FGM and then face all the consequences —criticism and online defamation, her family and her tribe may disown her, maybe her husband will divorce her – without proper support. I don't expect these women to speak out and face society.
You cannot ask a survivor to speak out against FGM and then face the consequences — criticism and defamation, her family and her tribe may reject her, perhaps her husband divorces her — without adequate support.
FGM eradication: too slow, inadequate
In Yemen and the United Arab Emirates, FGM is only prohibited in medical facilities, but not in private homes. In Mauritania there are legal restrictions, but not a direct ban. In Iraq, FGM is illegal in the Kurdish Autonomous Region, but remains legal in the center of the country.
However, there have been some initiatives to eradicate the practice. After years of vindication by women's rights organizations, Egypt banned the practice in 2008. Sudan, in the process of political transition after 30 years of dictatorship, became the last country to outlaw FGM in April.
But law enforcement remains a major challenge, because FGM still has a high degree of acceptance and prevalence.
Although the laws are a considerable brake, they are not sufficient. States need comprehensive and national strategies that include the Police, the Judiciary, the clergy, health service providers, and civil society education.
A series of regional crises and authoritarian regimes has delayed reforms, limiting campaigns and resources to address violations of women's rights.
Now, with the world's attention focused on COVID-19 and its economic impact, many programs that demand women's rights and provide social services to vulnerable women have been postponed or are no longer a priority. With so many families falling below the poverty line, so many girls being forced to drop out of school or contract early marriages, it is very likely that FGM will continue to be practiced in the region without anyone noticing.