Past and present AmplifyChange activists have been reporting an increase in opportunities for girls to be cut due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Here we share why this is happening and how activists have been responding to the changing environment while continuing to show zero tolerance to FGM/C.By Alethea Osborne and Chantal Donahue
Recent estimates from United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) suggest that up to an additional 2 million girls could undergo FGM/C in the next ten years because of COVID-19 and its ripple effects. Significant progress has been made to end FGM/C in recent years and we have the potential to end FGM/C permanently within a generation. This momentum should not be lost because of COVID-19. Activists and civil society groups need flexible and targeted support more than ever, and funding must be designed with their needs at the centre.
Schools create protection against FGM/C by serving as an external tracking of girl’s health, wellbeing, and attendance.Therefore, as highlighted by Kenyan activist Evanson Njeru from Compassion CBO, school closures ‘make it possible for FGM/C to take place every day’.
Most schools have now reopened and organisations and activists are working hard to track how many girls are re-enrolled. Initial reports are concerning, with suggestions from areas of Kenya that 30% of high school girls are missing from classes. This may be the result of FGM/C, marriage, pregnancy, the economic barrier of school fees, or a combination of these factors.
School closures ‘make it possible for FGM/C to take place every day’
Poverty is a known driver of FGM/C. In some contexts, cutting a girl is seen as a prerequisite to marriage and, depending on the custom, can lower the dowry that must be given alongside her or increase the bride price the family receives in return for the match.
Furthermore, cutters have a vested economic interest in offering the service. While these conditions have long been in place, they have been made worse by the economic impacts of COVID-19.
Limited Access to Health Centres
Some health facilities have had to prioritise COVID-19 cases, and primary and maternal care services are being overlooked. In South Eastern Nigeria, infantile FGM/C is often performed by traditional birth attendants (TBAs) after a home delivery. In recent years FGM/C rates were decreasing as more women delivered in hospitals and medical professionals did not include FGM/C as part of the service. Chioma Ike, the executive director of Circuit Pointe in Nigeria, reports that due to fear and limited access to health services during the pandemic, as well as the economic challenge of medical bills, many women have returned to giving birth at home with TBAs and allowed their new-born daughters to receive FGM/C in the process.
Furthermore, people are unwilling to seek health services where there is a risk of exposure to coronavirus. This can then cause an increase in maternal mortality and block access to critical sexual and reproductive health services, including those required by individuals who are experiencing consequences from undergoing FGM/C.
Due to fear and limited access to health services during the pandemic… many women have returned to giving birth at home… and allowed their new-born daughters to receive FGM/C in the process
Community-based surveillance systems designed to protect girls and report possible cases are less effective under lockdown. Families are isolated and local authorities are overburdened or uninterested while responding to the pandemic. In such situations, some see an opportunity to cut girls illegally as there is a lower chance of repercussion.
Isatou Jallow, a coordinator with The Girls’ Agenda in The Gambia, shared a startling case in which a three-year-old child was left with her grandmother during lockdown. When the girl returned home to her mother after two weeks, her mother discovered that her daughter had been cut. The mother, who had previously declared she would never allow her daughter to undergo FGM/C, was then faced with both the horror of her daughter’s situation and the decision of whether to have her mother-in-law reported to the police for the matter, as FGM/C is illegal in The Gambia. After several conversations, the mother chose to drop the case due to emotional pressure, highlighting the conflicting factors informing decisions around FGM/C.
Activists have taken a variety of approaches in their fight to end FGM/C, and all look closely at local issues and cultural approaches to make sure they continue to have the biggest possible impact. Below activists share some of their learnings:
Ensure contact, visibility, and influence.
This is key to the anti-FGM/C movement’s success – An innovative method used by Circuit Pointe in Nigeria is to contact diaspora groups and encourage them to ensure that individuals in their home communities are not returning to harmful traditional practices, such as FGM/C, as a result of lockdown measures. This method is in early stages but given the financial and cultural influence diaspora groups can have it is an approach worth tracking.
Learn from past pandemics
The recent Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone has been a useful insight into anticipating the larger impact of school closures and lockdown measures on FGM/C rates in the country.
Sarian Kamara, the founder of Keep the Drums Lose the Knife, an end-FGM/C organisation based in Makeni, Sierra Leone, explains that the population’s recent experience with Ebola has translated to a quick understanding that the social distancing measures put in place for COVID-19 would initially reduce FGM/C rates. Sarian is trying to leverage this situation by advocating for the government to recognise FGM/C as a crime. Otherwise, she predicts that, as seen after Ebola, once life resumes a sense of normalcy, Sierra Leone will see a rush to initiate girls into the Bondo Society, where FGM/C is a core practice.
Sarian predicts that… once life resumes a sense of normalcy, Sierra Leone will see a rush to initiate girls into the Bondo Society, where FGM/C is a core practice
She explains that, rather than holding perpetrators of sexual violence accountable, the communities believe that ‘the girls need to have their clitorises cut off to get rid of these sexual desires.’ Now schools have returned Sarian and her team are working to gather information of girls’ experiences during lockdown and ensure a return to normalcy is not taken as a green light to restart cutting rituals.
Adapt and go digital if appropriate
With mobility so limited, many have turned to using other forms of communication, such as hotlines or SMS services, to stay connected. For example, during the school closure from March to September 2020, Compassion CBO in Kenya documented a 15-fold increase in calls to their hotline reporting cases of FGM/C, child marriage, sexual violence, and adolescent pregnancies.
These digital methods have inevitable challenges when trying to reach the poorer and more rural communities who may not have phones or reliable service, but do ensure that a basic level of communication and reporting are still available.
Gendered impacts of COVID-19 are growing. FGM/C, as part of the gender equity, sexual assault, and violence against children agenda, must therefore be central to post COVID-19 planning, budgeting and conversation. Grassroots civil society organisations have the local knowledge and networks to navigate the pandemic and establish relevant and timely responses to the resurgence of FGM/C – activists can learn from one another.
However, the commitments of international financing partners look more vulnerable in the face of the global economic shock and pressure on government budgets. Just as some civil society groups on the frontline of the FGM/C response have been quick and creative to adapt, funders of civil society need to adapt too.