Lockdown has placed millions more girls at risk of FGM

Disrupting global efforts to put an end to FGM practices, deepening poverty caused by the pandemic means more girls are now at risk of being cut.

According to a United Nations official, Coronavirus has reversed progress on ending female genital mutilation (FGM). The (almost) universally condemned practice, which affects 200 million girls and women worldwide, involves the partial or total removal of the external genitalia and, in some African countries, the vaginal opening is sewn up too. Traditionally carried out to dictate proof of sexual purity, the procedure is often performed by ‘healers’ or untrained midwives using razors, broken glass, and knives.

Causing lasting harm to female health, education, and future opportunities, these practices are profoundly rooted in gender inequality as well as the male desire to control women’s bodies and, ultimately, their lives.

As a direct result of the pandemic, two million girls could undergo FGM in the next decade, far beyond what would normally be expected. In addition, deepening poverty caused by the crisis has the potential to push more parents into marrying off their young daughters.

It’s a seriously concerning issue that Natalia Kanem, head of the UN’s sexual and reproductive health agency, is referring to as a ‘silent and endemic crisis.’

Unfortunately, those believed to be at risk would have been safe were it not for faltering economies and extended periods of lockdown that have forced school closures. ‘Being in school is the main reason girls don’t get cut,’ says anti-FGM campaigner Domtila Chesang. ‘The girls are safe in school. With the schools closed, there’s no alternative – they are left to the mercy of their parents and communities.’

Restrictions on movement in quarantine have also made it near-impossible to raise awareness about the dangers of FGM within communities. With more girls staying indoors and their parents seeking to achieve financial security by cutting them, activists are understandably deeming the UN’s deadline to end FGM by 2030 extremely unlikely.

‘The pandemic both makes our job harder and more urgent as so many more girls are now at risk,’ adds Kanem. ‘When so many girls and women are unwanted, cut, erased, given, traded and sold, our common future is undermined. We should all be outraged.’

Although FGM was outlawed in Kenya almost ten years ago, one in five women between the ages of 15 and 49 has been cut. Now they’re being cut by the dozen.

In Egypt where it was criminalised in 2016, a man has been accused of deceiving his daughters into undergoing the procedure by telling them a doctor was visiting to administer Coronavirus vaccinations.

And in Somalia where it’s constitutionally illegal – yet has the highest rate of FGM on the planet with approximately 98% of women having undergone the operation – UNFPA shockingly estimates a further 290,000 will be cut this year.

‘FGM has increased because the girls have been out of school since March and mothers feel that now is a good time for their girls to get cut,’ says Somali-born FGM survivor Ifrah Ahmed. ‘It’s an emergency situation.’

While activists and authorities continue working tirelessly in the ongoing struggle to control the practice, with global focus on fighting off Covid-19, the virus has given FGM, alongside many other forms of gender-based violence – an opportunity to thrive.

‘Under the guise of coronavirus, a lot of abuses against women are taking place, whether it’s FGM or domestic violence at home,’ says Egyptian-American anti-FGM activist Reem Abdellatif. ‘It is the only thing anyone can think about. A lot of people in Egypt are living under the poverty line and everyone’s going into panic mode.’

But Kanem is hopeful. She stresses that education is the most powerful tool for boosting equality and that the pandemic has allowed more time to start conversations that could eventually quash these harmful practices. ‘We cannot let anything, not even the COVID pandemic, get in our way,’ she says. ‘Banning FGM is only a starting point. It’s grassroots and bottom-up initiatives that are crucial for changing attitudes.’

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