“There was a scandal,” says Reem Mehanna, remembering when the United Nations held its International Conference on Population and Development in her native Egypt. “It revolved around the release of a documentary about female genital mutilation in my country.”
The film depicted a human rights violation that exists to this day. Around the world, more than 125 million girls and women alive right now have been cut—with all or part of their external genitalia removed. Young Reem was shocked by the film. “I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “I was not circumcised. It is not a common practice in my family. I was sheltered from it.”
Reem admits her upbringing was not what most Egyptians experience. She was raised in an affluent neighborhood, the daughter of a Catholic Lebanese beauty queen and a Muslim Egyptian musician. “This influenced my personality big time. In my home, I was taught about acceptance, cultural diversity, and tolerance,” Reem says proudly. “That people come from different backgrounds, but they share humanity.”Reem’s family believed you are never too young to change your country for the better. She was interested in politics from an early age, reading the daily newspaper on her dad’s lap. He called her, “Our minister of social affairs.” It didn’t matter that Reem was a girl. She was raised to believe girls could do anything.
Reem’s family believed you are never too young to change your country for the better. She was interested in politics from an early age, reading the daily newspaper on her dad’s lap. He called her, “Our minister of social affairs.” It didn’t matter that Reem was a girl. She was raised to believe girls could do anything.
Then the film changed everything.
“I remember thinking ‘what possible purpose could this practice serve?’ I couldn’t find anybody to answer my questions. Nobody—not my aunts, not my mom—would answer me. So I researched it myself.” What Reem discovered angers her to this day. That the “procedure” has absolutely no health benefits. It can devastate girls’ and women’s health, causing severe bleeding and infection, then complications in childbirth and even the death of their newborns.
“It’s basically the result of cultural misconceptions that have lasted for years and years. It is the embodiment of discrimination against women,” says Reem, refusing to mince words. “It objectifies a girl completely, reducing her to a sex tool. Circumcision is meant to stop her sexual desire, so she can be an untouched virgin—the legal sex toy of her future husband. I was ashamed this was happening in my country and to girls even younger than me. And they didn’t understand why. Nobody even cared to tell a little girl, before cutting her, why they were doing it.”
In the years that followed, Reem saw a pattern. Despite going to a good school and having open-minded parents, she received no information about her sexual and reproductive health. “None,” she says. “Zero.” She saw the pervasive inequality in her society. “What to wear, where you can go, who to have as friends, what you can or cannot study,” says Reem. “Girls and women face boundaries everywhere.”
She saw that in rural communities, girls are devalued from day one. “If a woman gives birth to a boy, her family will pay the midwife 50 pounds,” explains Reem. “If it’s a girl, they pay 20.”
And Reem witnessed the lasting effects of the violation that outraged her as a child. “When I got older, I saw that the women who endured female genital mutilation were taught by the practice—by being cut as little girls—that sex brings pain and shame. They no longer thought of their sexual and reproductive health as a right.”
Enough was enough. Reem made it her mission to empower Egyptian women to take their rights back. She got her Masters in public policy administration, believing her country’s future depends on its ability to better manage its resources. “Egyptians are taught we are a poor country.” She says resolutely, “No, we are not. We are a very rich country, but we have been unable to manage all that we have. The same is true for women. In Egypt, women have been taught we are nothing. We do not know our self worth. Through my work, I say to my fellow women, ‘You don’t know how full of resources you are! You are worth something. You can do everything.’”
After graduation, Reem joined the National Council for Women, whose mission is to end gender discrimination in Egypt at every level. She worked to eradicate illiteracy among young girls, even convincing parents to delay their young daughter’s marriage, so she could remain in school. Today, Reem manages Pathfinder’s Forsa project, empowering women in two of the poorest governorates in Upper Egypt with economic opportunity and life-changing sexual and reproductive health care.
“Knowledge is lifesaving,” says Reem. “With the information our project provides—about sexual and reproductive health and rights, contraception, pregnancy, livelihoods—women realize they are capable of making choices that are right for them. Capable of taking back the lost part of their humanity.”
Reem dares to demand change. She will not turn back. “The thing I am most proud of is helping women believe in themselves.” And it is working. “The Egyptian woman I see today has a spark in her eye, a smile on her face. She is saying with all the persistence in the world, ‘I will change my situation.’ You know what? She actually does. She changes. She realizes her potential and nothing can stop her.”