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UNICEF Urges End to Female Genital Mutilation in Egypt

The United Nations Children's Fund says the practice of female genital mutilation remains unacceptably high in Egypt. But, a UNICEF representative tells VOA the Egyptian government is committed to ending this widespread cultural practice that is said to pre-date the time of the Pharaohs. Lisa Schlein reports from Geneva.

Female genital mutilation affects both Muslim and Christian girls in Egypt. The government outlawed the practice in 1997. Nevertheless, studies show it remains widespread.

An Egyptian Demographic and Health Survey conducted in 2005 shows more than three-quarters of girls between age 15 and 17 had been subjected to female genital cutting.

UNICEF representative in Egypt, Erma Manoncourt, tells VOA many people view this practice as a rite of passage and a way of ensuring a good marriage for their daughters. She says most people believe it has a religious basis.

"There is no evidence in religious texts either in the Muslim tradition nor in the Christian tradition that promotes this practice," Manoncourt said. "Oftentimes, unfortunately, when you are in rural areas or when you are talking with people and you ask them why are you doing it, they might cite that by religion they should be doing it. But, in fact, that is not the case."

Genital female mutilation often involves excising the clitoris and sometimes other female genitalia. It can cause both physical and psychological trauma. In some cases, the procedure causes hemorrhaging, shock and sexual dysfunction. And some girls have died from the cutting.

The United Nations reports that globally about three million girls are cut each year, and an estimated 130 million women have undergone the procedure.

It is practiced in about 28 African countries, including Sudan, Somalia, Sierra Leone and Mali. It also takes place in some Middle Eastern countries and in immigrant communities in Europe and North America.

The Egyptian demographic survey shows that female genital cutting is most widespread among poor families in rural areas of the Nile valley in southern Egypt.

But, Manoncourt says many families in urban areas have used a loophole in the 1997 law to have the procedure done in hospitals.

"The loophole was it had a statement that said under exceptional cases," Manoncourt said. "And, of course what happened right then was a number of families used that as a way to kind of get in to get this practice done by medical practitioners, whether it be physicians, nurses or whatever. So, what was unique about Egypt is that most of it has been done by the medical profession. So, 75 percent according to the last statistics I saw said it was coming from this particular group of people as opposed to other parts of Africa traditional excisers."

Manoncourt says the government has since closed the loophole and is imposing fines upon those who continue to perform the procedure.

She says religious and political leaders have banded together to end the practice of female genital mutilation following the deaths of two young girls in June. She says there is a momentum never seen before to end to the practice.