In a village outside Cairo, Egypt, on the top floor of the local community development association, a Plan International partner organization, young girls are giggling as they act out a role-play about Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
After appreciative applause from their classmates, a frank and open discussion about FGM follows, during which 34-year-old Warda Sayed poses thought-provoking questions and encourages the girls to express their opinions to 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. Because they are the same sex, they can speak vividly about it with each other. 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.
Twenty year-old Mahmoud and 25-year-old Ahmed are volunteer peer-to-peer educators at the CDA. Both Tamouh residents are fully aware of the area’s cultures and customs and are under no illusions about the part men can play in alleviating FGM in Egypt, where the rate of female circumcision is the third-highest in the world. Only Somalia and Guinea record higher rates.
As well as explaining the procedure to their peers during the sessions, they focus on the negative impacts 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 said. “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 organize awareness lectures myself, but I bring up FGM in places people meet at, such as a coffee shop or family gatherings, 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,” he said. “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.”
There are various reasons that many men support FGM.
“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.
Ahmed boldly predicts that FGM will be eradicated in Tamouh within a decade. That goal seems ambitious, but it’s ambition that is needed. Buoyant youth advisory chairman Bayoumy is confident that FGM can eventually be eradicated.
“It’s hard to specify a number of years, as we have other villages we cannot reach,” he said. “In Upper Egypt, 85 percent of villages are still practicing FGM. We are yet to change these traditions, but in the urban areas we succeeded in changing some minds.”