Image used for illustrative purposes Image Credit: AFP

Cairo: The Egyptian government has approved a draft bill, toughening penalties against the ban on female genital mutilation (FGM) to reach a maximum of 20 years in prison. The draft promises 15 to 20 years of jail term if the performer of the procedure is a medical professional and the victim dies.

The maximum penalty in a 2016 law was seven years in prison. According to the latest amendment, the minimum penalty for conducting the procedure is set at five years in jail that reaches seven if the practice results in permanent disability.

The draft allows the court judge to order the dismissal of the medical perpetrator of the FGM procedure from his/her government post for a maximum of five years and barring them from the medical practice for a similar period, in addition to the closure of the institution where the procedure is illegally carried out. The verdict will then published in the media at the convict’s expense.

The person on whose request the female circumcision is conducted as well as anyone promoting and inciting the practice face imprisonment according to the draft, which must be approved by the parliament to take effect.

The FGM practice, which includes the removal of all or part of the clitoris, is usually done for local girls before reaching puberty. The centuries-old practice has been banned in Egypt since 2008. Around 90 per cent of women aged over 40 years have been subjected to FGM in Egypt, according to the findings of a government survey conducted in 2014.

Advocates of the procedure believe it is imperative for women’s chastity allegedly by curbing their sexual desires. Experts say that severe forms of FGM can lead to life-long psychosexual problems and troubles related to menstruation, sexual intercourse and childbirth.

It is the second time that Egypt's government has approved amendments to the legislation banning FGM. The law was tightened five years ago to make it a criminal offence to request or carry out the widely condemned practice.

But highlighting the difficulty of eliminating FGM in Egypt, where there is widespread acceptance of it, no one has been successfully prosecuted under the 2016 law and women's rights groups say the ban has not been well enforced. "It's a good step, but we don't want only laws on paper with no implementation," Entessar El-Saeed, director of the Cairo Foundation for Development and Law, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

El Saeed said imposing strict prison terms on doctors and other perpetrators of the crime could prove difficult because there is an entrenched belief in Egyptian society that FGM is not a crime.

While Somalia has the world's highest FGM prevalence, with 98% of women having been cut, Egypt has the greatest number of women who have undergone it, according to UNICEF.

Reda El Danbouki, executive director of the Women's Center for Guidance and Legal Awareness, said the amendments would not help eliminate the practice unless judges, policemen and other law-enforcement officials started to take the issue seriously.

"Most of them do not take cases seriously because they believe it is for the benefit of the girl to undergo female circumcision for the protection of her chastity," he said.