This post is co-written by: Rachel, Policy Associate and Salma, Egypt Fellow
Around the world, women’s and girls’ value as human beings is all too often based largely upon their sexuality, rather than their personal and societal contributions.
Disproportionately, girls around the world are pulled out of school, restricted in terms of where and how they can get around and with who whom they are allowed to speak. Many are forced into unwanted marriages. One of the most profound ways girls are affected is they’re often forced to undergo what is known as Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C). FGM/C is a type of surgery performed on young girls – in a misguided effort – to “preserve their purity.”
This surgery can cause irreparable harm to girls’ health and, in some cases, can be deadly. Take, for example, Sohier Al-Batea, a 13-year old Egyptian girl, who died in 2013 after a trained and licensed medical doctor cut away parts of her external genitalia as part of a FGM/C surgery.
Though universally considered a human rights violation, FGM/C is all too common throughout the world and can be found in Europe, the United States, Canada and Australia. In fact, the United Nations (UN) estimates that, globally, 15 million girls will experience this harmful practice by 2030. When a girl’s sexuality is tied to both her and her family’s honor, removing pieces of her body that are tied to her sexuality are seen as measures that will both protect her and prepare her for marriage. Medical professionals, however, have said that the practice has no health benefits but rather causes immediate and long-term, acute and chronic physical consequences.
Although there are laws making the practice illegal in most, if not all, of the countries where FGM/C is prevalent, laws alone are not enough. Often, social attitudes view FGM/C as necessary to prevent girls from having and acting upon sexual desires. These views further encourage parents to cut their daughters, and stigmatizes families who do not. A case in point: the 2014 Egyptian Demographic Health Survey (DHS) showed more than 50 percent of Egyptian women favor FGM/C, viewing it as aligning with their cultural and religious traditions. If we are to end this practice, minds must change along with the proper implementation of laws.
Another harmful practice that robs girls of rights and opportunities, though illegal in most countries, is child marriage, which claims 28 girls every minute. More than 700 million women alive today were married as children, and one in three of them were married before they turned 15. Frequently married to men significantly older than them, child brides experience a lack of control over their own lives, and often experience physical, sexual, and emotional violence at the hands of their husbands and in-laws. Girls who marry young are more likely to become pregnant earlier, die in childbirth, have more children, have those children die before they turn five, see an end to their own education, and experience extreme social isolation.
The practices of FGM/C and child marriage are both tied to traditional norms that value girls more as wives and mothers than as girls in their own right. It’s important to note that not all child brides undergo FGM/C, and not all girls who are cut end up marrying before they turn 18. However, both processes are often linked as girls are often cut in preparation for marriage. Both practices stem from the same discriminatory norms and attitudes regarding female sex. It is clear laws and policies alone are not sufficient to end these harmful, and sometimes deadly, practices. Ending both practices would have enormous social, health, and economic impacts on developing nations. Most importantly, it would mean that girls like Sohier would not have to die, and could instead experience a healthy adolescence that will allow her to safely transition to adulthood.
In Egypt, where Sohier Al-Batea died, FGM/C is illegal but remains widespread, and has become medicalized. With licensed doctors performing the procedure, many parents feel safe when putting their daughter under the knife. According to the Population Reference Bureau (PRB), an estimated 100-140 million women have undergone FGM/C worldwide. UNICEF reports that one in five of those who have undergone FGM/C lives in Egypt, and around 91 percent of the female Egyptian population have experienced some form of cutting.
Al-Batea’s death sparked widespread condemnation, particularly from Egyptian children’s and women’s right advocates. Despite this condemnation, both the doctor and Al-Batea’s family were acquitted of criminal charges, even though the anti-FGM/C law has been on the books since 2008. Laws without enforcement, advocates said, meant little.
However, in a landmark conviction in 2015, Al-Batea’s doctor was sentenced to two years in prison, and his clinic was suspended for a year. Her father was punished with three months of house arrest for ordering the procedure. As the first act of enforcing the anti-FGM/C law in Egypt, these punishments were seen as a positive step. Sadly, despite the conviction and fine, the doctor who killed Al-Batea was recently found to not only be out of jail, but still performing FGM/C procedures. Clearly enforcement efforts in Egypt are not sending a very strong message, even to the one man who was convicted of violating the law. Moreover, advocates fear that enforcing policy without combining such efforts with campaigns to change attitudes and norms will drive the practice underground, and will actually increase the number of girls whose lives are at risk from the practice.
When girls’ value is seen by communities exclusively as her potential as a wife and mother, and not for her own unique rights and contributions to society beyond these roles, FGM/C and child marriage are allowed to flourish. As advocates to empower adolescent girls, we cannot accept this fate for girls around the world. When allowed and encouraged to transition safely to adulthood, girls can contribute to the social and economic welfare of countries in a big way.
Combatting social, moral and religious norms can be incredibly tough, but is not impossible. The first-ever Girl Summit in 2014 drew strong pledges to end both FGM/C and child marriage. Now more than a year later, the global community is watching to make sure that countries are held accountable to their commitments to end child marriage and FGM/C. The hope is that girls are in control of their own sexuality, and they are seen as more than the potential wives and mothers they may become, but as the adolescents they currently are.
Cover photo credit: Skhakirov, Flickr Creative Commons