“Harriet Harman: Egyptian women have made advances, but something like 74% of girls between the ages of 8 and 12 have female genital mutilation …
Andrew Marr: (over) I read that statistic. I can’t believe that.
Harriet Harman: … which is a massive figure. And you know when I was there …
Andrew Marr: Is that really true?
The Andrew Marr Show, BBC1, 5 June 2011
Raising concerns about the position of women within Egyptian society and this year’s uprising, Labour’s Deputy Leader Harriet Harman cited the statistic above which interviewer Andrew Marr found impossible to believe.
Although the subject of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) in Egypt strays somewhat beyond the domestic focus we have at Full Fact, we decided to track down the source of the figures.
A report from Unicef, published towards the end of last year, does look at the prevalence of FGM/C and steps that have been taken to end the practice.
It defines FGM/C as: “All procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons,” and points to high prevalence of FGM/C in countries such as Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan.
Procedures falling into this category are opposed by Unicef, not just because they are viewed as a violation of universal human rights, but also due to the negative health impacts of the procedure, such as failure to heal, inflammatory diseases and urinary infections.
According to Unicef, the practice stems from a “belief that FGM/C makes a girl eligible for marriage, controls her sexual desire and prevents adultery. Commonly called tahara (purification), FGM/C is associated with good hygiene, cleanliness and chastity.”
Yet the figures themselves are not produced by Unicef. They are produced as part of the Egyptian Demographic and Health Survey (EDHS), conducted by the country’s Ministry of Health in 2008.
The report explains that the practice “remains widespread” despite a ban passed by the Egyptian government, with an estimated 91 per cent of women aged 15-49 having been ‘circumcised’.
The report also gives an age breakdown of the figures, enabling us to gain a better sense of the accuracy of Ms Harman’s claim.
The report explains that the median age for cutting is 10 years old. However the 74 per cent figure applies to the the 15-17 group rather than the 8-12 group. As the table below shows.
In the age range between 7 and 12, the average rate of circumcision is 31.7 per cent.
So while the percentage used by Ms Harman is one found in these figures, it applies to a different age range than the one she cited during the interview. We can only guess as to whether Andrew Marr would have declared his disbelief had the the age range of 15-17 been cited.
An additional point, related to the argument is that it is claimed that there is evidence of a declining trend of FGM/C. A World Health Organisation study which compared the 2008 EDHS data to that from 2000 found that prevalence of FGM/C had declined from 97 per cent to 91 per cent.
Likewise, the downward trend is anticipated to continue. According to the 2008 EHDS report, “over the next fifteen years in Egypt, there will be a steady decline in the proportions of young adult women who are circumcised, from a level of 77 percent among girls currently age 15-17 to a level around 45 percent when girls who are currently under age three reach their eighteenth birthday.”