The Egyptian government announced plans on Thursday to ban all female circumcision, the widely-practised removal of the clitoris which just days ago cost the life of a 12-year-old girl.
Officially the practice, which affects both Muslim and Christian women in Egypt and goes back to the time of the pharaohs, was banned in 1997 but doctors were allowed to operate “in exceptional cases”.
Health Minister Hatem al-Gabali has decided to ban every doctor and member of the medical profession, in public or private establishments, from carrying out a clitoridectomy, a ministry press official told AFP.
Any circumcision “will be viewed as a violation of the law and all contraventions will be punished,” said the official, adding that it was a “permanent ban”.
The ban must still be translated into law and could face a tough debate in parliament, but is likely to be passed.
A government survey in 2000 said the practice was carried out on 97 percent of the country’s women aged between 15 and 45 years of age.
In the latest fatality, 12-year-old Bedur Ahmed Shaker was taken by her mother to a private clinic in Minya, a town on the Nile south of Cairo, for the operation. She died before she could be transferred to hospital.
Her mother accused the woman doctor of negligence, charging that her daughter’s death was linked to the anaesthetic and not the removal of the clitoris, for which she had paid 50 pounds (nearly nine dollars). Police have arrested both women.
Sarah Leah Whitson of US-based rights group Human Rights Watch welcomed the decision but remained cautious.
“We welcome the ban on female genital mutilation but the key issue is if there is going to be an implementation,” she said.
After the 1997 ban many women simply went to underground clinics for the operation.
Suzanne Moubarak, the wife of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, has been an active campaigner against the procedure.
On Thursday she called it “one of the most feared attacks against women” and said the battle to stop it must be a “national priority”.
Powerful religious leaders, usually silent on taboos relating to female sexuality, have also started to speak out against the practice which many Egyptians believe is a duty under Islam and Christianity.
After the death of Shaker, chief mufti Ali Gomaa declared female circumcision forbidden under Islam.
Mohammed Sayyed Tantaoui, the sheikh of Al-Azhar university which is the top Sunni Muslim authority, and Coptic Patriarch Chenouda III also declared it had “no foundation in the religious texts” of either Islam or Christianity.
An education campaign launched in 2003, involving television advertisements, leaflets and visits to remote villages by health workers, “was positive but lacked a legal framework,” said a health ministry official.
According to the World Health Organisation, 100-140 million women around the world suffer genital mutilation, with two million girls circumcised every year.
Female circumcision can cause death through haemorraging and later complications during childbirth. It also carries risks of infection, urinary tract problems and mental trauma.
It is practised widely in Africa but was banned earlier this year in Eritrea.
The United Nations describes female genital mutilation as a practice with many adverse physical and psychological impacts and with no demonstrated medical benefits.