On the top floor of a local community development association (CDA), a partner of child rights organisation Plan International, young girls are giggling as they act out a role-play about female genital mutilation (FGM).
After an appreciative applause from their classmates, a frank and open discussion about FGM follows, where 34-year-old Warda Sayed poses thought-provoking questions and encourages the girls to harvest opinions from each other. As facilitator, Warda’s message is clear: you not only have a choice, but a responsibility to raise awareness about FGM. You can almost see her words floating into the girls’ minds.
Activities like this are part of a sexual and reproductive health project funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency. It is targeted at girls, of course, but – perhaps surprisingly – the project aims to raise awareness among boys and men as well.
“Men are very important to our awareness campaign,” Warda says. “There are some issues and arguments that as women, we cannot discuss with them. That is where my male colleagues come in. To eradicate FGM we need to raise awareness among both men and women equally.”
She goes on to explain that men often lack accurate information about FGM. They hear about if from childhood, but they don’t know about any of the physical and emotional consequences of the practice. Having men involved in facilitating is an important way of getting the message across.
20 year-old Mahmoud Marouf and 25-year-old Ahmed Fathy are volunteer peer-to-peer educators at the CDA. Both local residents in the village, they are fully aware of the area’s cultures and customs and are under no illusions about the part men like themselves can play in alleviating FGM in Egypt, where the rate of female genital cutting is the third-highest in the world. Only Somalia and Guinea record higher rates.
As well as explaining the procedure to their peers in the sessions, they focus on the negative impact of FGM – especially on the long-term difficulties it may cause between a husband and his wife. Mahmoud found sessions tricky at first as it was a new experience talking about FGM in front of girls, but the reason he started attending the lectures was to raise his own awareness in order to be more persuasive.
“When I meet my friends I talk to them about it and try to influence them,” he says. “A lot of young men come to me and I broach the subject. Some accept it and others reject it, but I’ll try several times until I convince them.”
Ahmed is similarly proactive. “I don’t have enough money to organise awareness lectures myself, but I bring up FGM in places people meet at, such as a coffee shop or family gathering, and start discussions on Facebook and other social media.”
Is it working? “Well, most of my friends don’t practice FGM on their daughters or wives anymore. When my brother had a daughter I asked him not to circumcise her, but he disagreed at first and shouted at me. I explained the negative impacts on her health, showed him some cases from the internet and finally succeeded in convincing him.”
The reasons that many men support FGM are multiple. “From the day they are born they get used to the idea,” Mahmoud says. “They think the practice will complete the beauty of the woman, and that circumcision will help to make the girl sexually excited. And they believe uncircumcised girls are not respectable and can have a love affair with anyone.”
This perception has been passed down through generations, and it is proving tough to shift.
“Some mothers refuse girls to marry their sons if they are not circumcised,” Ahmed adds. “Most of the girls who are uncircumcised, their families do not announce it as they are afraid no-one will marry their daughter. If she got married and the husband discovered she was uncircumcised they could get a divorce or he could take her for the operation, because the customs, behaviors and traditions allow this.”
“In most cases the mother and the grandmother decide on the circumcision, and as the son respects his mother, he obeys her without hesitation when she tells him to circumcise his daughter,” says Ahmed. “But in future it will be the man’s decision to eradicate FGM. We have to approach men, and we must repeat the messages and the lectures so people don’t forget.” It’s important to acknowledge here that while men can play an important role in ending FGM, at Plan International we believe girls should have autonomy over their own bodies and be empowered to make their own decisions.
Ahmed boldly predicts that FGM will be eradicated in Tamouh within a decade. It seems ambitious, but it’s ambition that is needed.
Similarly optimistic and just as passionate is law student Bayoumy Mostafa.
At 22, he also speaks to his peers about FGM, but says it is difficult to reach out to older people about the topic: “They were raised to inherit customs from previous generations, so they can’t suddenly get rid of such traditions,” he sighs. “We have to target boys at 12.”
This was the age Bayoumy first learned about FGM, although it was too late to advise his elder sister, who had already been cut years earlier. “In our village, girls can be circumcised from the age of nine,” he says.
Does it matter if Bayoumy’s future wife has undergone genital cutting? “It will not influence my decision at all. I have many criteria that would help me choose my future wife. If she is circumcised then it is not her fault. I can’t make her feel guilty about something that is not her choice.”
So why does he think some men refuse to marry women who have not been cut? “Among my friends it is not the young men who are insisting on circumcision, but the mother who is trying to convince her sons. As men, they don’t ask about FGM because they have an impression that all the girls in the community are circumcised.
“Men and boys will not change their minds by themselves and we must make it our responsibility to inform both boys and girls, as not everyone knows about it. My father is a farmer and he is sticking to traditions, but younger generations are willing to change their minds and are not as stubborn about such customs.”
Bayoumy believes there are two main ways to get the message across, besides the peer-to-peer education he does: firstly, the government needs to run awareness campaigns similar to those that run on TV, highlighting the dangers of drugs. Secondly, the media need to focus more on FGM and similar issues.
Dr Magdy Helmy Kedees, health programme officer at humanitarian organisation Caritas Egypt, has held his own successful awareness sessions for men at the CDA in Tamouh. He says NGOs and government failed to reach out to the right groups when advocacy efforts against FGM started to pick up pace in the mid-1990s, and regrets that boys and men were not engaged sooner.
“We missed that we needed to communicate with men to convey our messages,” he explains. “Later, we discovered that the best investment is to reach out to the new generations.
“Boys and girls at primary and secondary schools will form the future community. Even though the girls might be circumcised, they will be the mothers of the future and could decide not to have their daughters undergo FGM. That’s the best investment that can be made.”
Islam Razek, a voluntary board member at the CDA, agrees that education is the key: “What Dr. Magdy explained to us contradicted our religious understanding. We attended several sessions to raise our awareness about the negative medical effects, the psychological effects, and our customs, habits and traditions.”
He was shocked to have his long-held beliefs debunked. “As an educated person, I started to google FGM to confirm the information. We found that all our behaviours and traditions concerning FGM are totally wrong. Not all our customs are correct.”
One father who is unflinching in his support of female genital cutting is 43-year-old Mohamed, a social worker who intends for his daughter to be cut when she turns 11 in four years’ time. Like many Christian and Muslim Egyptians, he is certain his religion endorses the practice.
But Mohamed hasn’t reached the decision on his own. “Generally the women in the family are supporting circumcision as it is a common practice according to our customs and traditions. The girl enhances her purity, cleanliness and chastity, and it will also protect her from infection, bacteria and viruses. If the girl is not circumcised, she will transfer sexual diseases to her husband, as she is not clean.”
Does he think there could be any downsides to the practice? The reply is curt but unconvincing. “There is no negative impact. Any negative impact is the doctor’s fault,” he says.
When the time comes, Mohamed’s wife will break the news to their daughter and take her to the doctor. What if she resists? He looks slightly despairing, as if he hasn’t considered the possibility. “I will not oblige her to be circumcised,” he reluctantly admits.
Buoyant youth advisory chairman Bayoumy is confident that FGM can eventually be eradicated, but how long does he think it will take? “It’s hard to specify a number of years as we have other villages we cannot reach: in Upper Egypt, 85 per cent of villages are still practicing FGM. We are yet to change these traditions but in the urban areas we succeeded in changing some minds.”
“If we work properly we can succeed in eradicating FGM by 2026, but this must be with assistance from the government. We could even succeed in eradicating FGM in ten years, if the community and government agencies cooperated with each other to reach that goal.”
Men and women, communities and governments, young and old: it’s clear that only a wholly joint effort will persuade Egyptian families to ditch FGM for good.