Monday, 24 November 2014

700 USD for your life?

Late last week, news broke out that an Egyptian doctor prosecuted for performing FGM had been acquitted. This particular doctor, Dr. Raslan Fadl, circumcised Suhair al-Bata’a in a botched operation that resulted in Suhair’s death. Suhair’s parents had paid Dr. Fadl 700 USD for his services, only taking him to court after their daughter’s death. This case has gained international prominence because it represents the first time that Egypt has prosecuted anyone who has performed the procedure. It represents the first time that Egypt’s law prohibiting FGM has been used, albeit in a fashion that leaves much to be desired. (Tragically, the law itself came about following the death of another girl, 12-year old Badour Shaker)

FGM is widely practiced in Egypt, where over 90% of women and girls aged between 15 and 49 have been circumcised (UNFPA). Today, the prevalence varies based on residency (rural/urban) and wealth status, with urban and well-off women and girls reporting lower rates FGM prevalence. Apart from this high prevalence rate, Egypt also grapples with the difficult task of combating medicalization of FGM/C through advocacy efforts. Medicalization involves the use of health care providers typically in a health facility to conduct FGM. This medicalization of FGM is the phenomenon that led to Suhair’s demise. Reports indicate that Suhair suffered a significant drop in blood pressure and a severe allergic reaction to penicillin, a drug that would have been unnecessary had she been allowed to forgo the tradition.

13-year old Suhair al Bata'a died in June 2013 due to complications following FGM 

While Suhair’s case lets on plenty about the state of FGM advocacy in Egypt, it also complexifies the question of prosecuting FGM cases. For one, prosecuting FGM is only a recent development that has come up following the institution of national laws that outlaw the practice. Prosecution may involve proving intent of the parents or woman/girl to undergo circumcision, a task that may prove difficult if all actors collude to evade the law – as seems to have been the case in Egypt. Even more difficult is the question of imprisonment, where parents – who may be a family’s primary breadwinners – may face jail time leading to double traumatic experiences for the child in question.

Regardless of this difficulty, the Egyptian judicial system has failed Suhair. The 700 USD paid to keep her within tradition only resulted in her death. What’s more, the Egyptian  law criminalizing FGM allows plaintiff and defendant to settle their case out of court. This loophole permits a family to collect compensation for their daughter’s death; actions that neither consider the violation of Suhair’s rights nor bring the dead back to life. That Suhair had refused to undergo the procedure only shows the extent to which her death calls for a more prudent judicial system that recognizes how FGM affects the livelihoods of women and girls. Such a judicial system must consider the cultural and socio-economic contexts within which FGM is practiced, but at no time should it esteem culture over life. Suhair and Badour are two girls too many. 

Monday, 17 November 2014


Last week, local Kenyan and international print and online media were filled with photos showing Pokot girls undergoing FGM. The photos, taken by Reuters photojournalist Siegfried Modola, document how four Pokot girls underwent the practice, including the practitioners, the actual cutting, and the ceremonies that accompany the tradition.

These photos indicate that we have much that still needs to be done.

First, the photos show us that FGM continues to be practiced, even as we engage in advocacy against it. We still need to research and inform communities about the risks associated with the practice. We need to allow them to come into conversation with us; allow the communities to take active roles in addressing the practice in their communities. We need to recognize the cultural place of FGM in order to become effective advocates against the practice.

Second, displaying the photos in international media may inform people about the practices, but the comments of outrage that usually follow these photos do not bring an end to the practice. In fact, they might do more harm than good. International media reporting on African issues often reduce the complexity within the continent in order to reach a wider lay-person audience. What’s more, Africa is often “a country” rather than a continent of 54 countries, each with its diversity of peoples and cultures. FGM in Africa is one such issue, and media often describes it as a barbaric, outdated practice, rather than identifying the context of such cultural practices. Uninformed readers will think FGM is practiced in all African countries, and that all African women are suffering under this ordeal. Indeed, they would fail to know that FGM is nonexistent in much of Southern Africa.

ACCAF aims to address the aforementioned concerns by researching and documenting the best interventions that might be used, while recognizing the cultural contexts in which these communities are embedded. Our work must go beyond sharing photos and reports with the world, to recognizing that the individuals who practice FGM are human, and our engagement with them must keep their humanity at the centre. And if we are to bring FGM to an end within one generation, we must continue to engage all stakeholders, including the women and men in these communities. We must understand the faces and phases of FGM, the women who undergo the practice, the types of the cut, and the trajectory of advocacy against FGM.