CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's parliament on Wednesday toughened penalties for female genital mutilation, adopting amendments that punish perpetrators with up to 15 years in prison if a child dies and up to seven years for performing the procedure.
The centuries-old practice, misguidedly believed to control women's sexuality, was criminalized in Egypt in 2008. But it remains widespread in the country, where an estimated 90 percent of women have undergone some form of the forced procedure. Like most sex-related topics, social taboos have prevented it from being discussed publicly, especially in rural Egypt.
Wednesday's vote came four days after Cabinet sent the proposed amendments to parliament. The state MENA news agency quoted lawmaker Ahmed el-Sherif as saying the penalties are meant to act as "deterrence."
The adopted amendments redefine FGM from a misdemeanor, where offenders typically receive up to two years in prison, to a felony, which incurs tougher sentences and punishments.
"This is very important for future generations," said Vivian Fouad, the head of a Health Ministry's program to combat female genital mutilation. She hailed the vote as a step in the right direction but said it will take years for the change to take into effect.
Suad Abu-Dayyeh, the Middle East and North Africa consultant for Equality Now, said the group congratulates Egyptian lawmakers on passing the amendments.
"This is a legal precedence in Egypt, which will establish it as a model for African countries to follow the same path," she added. Equality Now is an international organization promoting the rights of women and girls.
Abu-Dayyeh, however, pointed to a flaw in the amendments, which could apparently still allow doctors to approve the procedure. According to el-Sherif, the amendments ban "any cuts of the external female genital organs unless permitted by a specialized doctor."
"This ... could give families leeway to still circumcise their daughters," she said.
In one of the most recent incidents, a 17-year-old girl died of a suspected stroke under anesthesia while undergoing female circumcision in the city of Suez in May. In July, the local Egyptian dailies reported another death, of a 13-year-old girl in the southern city of Qena. The child died from a suspected overdose in anesthetics while she was undergoing the procedure.
The U.N. children's agency estimates at least 200 million girls and women in 30 countries have undergone the procedure, with half of them in Egypt, Ethiopia and Indonesia. In all the 30 countries, UNICEF says the majority of girls are circumcised before reaching their fifth birthday.
"In Yemen, 85 percent of girls experienced the practice within their first week of life," the agency said.
According to the data, girls under the age of 14 represent an estimated 44 million of those who have been cut, with the highest prevalence in this age group in Gambia at 56 percent, Mauritania at 54 percent and Indonesia, where about half of girls aged 11 or under have undergone the practice.
In 2012, the U.N. General Assembly unanimously approved a resolution calling for a global ban on female genital mutilation.
Genital mutilation involves removing all or part of the clitoris and the labia minora. It is practiced among both Muslims and Christians, and social pressures are strong — many families fear that an uncircumcised daughter will be unable to marry. Rights advocates condemn the practice as abuse and mutilation that scars girls physically and psychologically.