by Dr. Tammary Esho, Director, Amref Health Africa End FGM/C Centre of Excellence

After decades of progress in reducing the number of girls and young women subjected to female genital mutilation (also known as cutting, or FGM/C), there’s no question that the COVID-19 pandemic has set the movement back. By how much? We don’t know, yet, for certain.

In the early months of the pandemic, the UNFPA estimated that an additional two million more cases of FGM/C could occur over the next decade. That’s on top of the three million girls already estimated to be at risk of undergoing FGM/C annually on the continent of Africa.

To better understand how COVID-19 is affecting the practice of FGM/C in countries in Africa where Amref Health Africa works, we carried out community-level surveys to hear first-hand from girls, women, civil society organizations, and community leaders about what they have been experiencing and witnessing. Respondents in these surveys noted that FGM/C had been decreasing in their communities before the pandemic. But, they’ve seen FGM/C increase during COVID-19. In Kenya, 55% of respondents from three counties with high rates of FGM/C said the pandemic has led to an increase in the practice.

We also asked what aspects of the pandemic were driving an increase in FGM/C in their particular communities. The most common reasons given in Kenya were closure of schools (50%) and people staying at home for longer, including potential victims (20%). One woman in Samburu County said: “If they were in school, we would be able to control because you would have a way of knowing who is here or who has not reported back to school. If they are in school it is easy to make a report, you see when they are involved with the parent and it is the parents who are encouraging this [FGM/C]; we may not be in a position to know exactly where the child is.” Another major reason mentioned by community members was the loss of livelihoods associated with job losses and business closures thereby increasing girls’ and women’s vulnerabilities to violence.

Other reasons given by those we surveyed include the lack of access to justice due to the restricted operations of courts and other departments within the justice and legal systems. Additionally, the inability of civil society organizations to provide services and respond to urgent cases due to COVID-19 restrictions has further worsened the plight of women, girls, and survivors during the pandemic.

Infectious disease experts are warning us that COVID-19 won’t be the last pandemic we will face. It may not even be the worse. In hindsight, it appears that no country was well-prepared for the widespread damage across the whole of society that a pandemic can cause. Community-level research is vital to finding the lessons that we need to learn and apply now as COVID-19 continues to surge even as vaccines are being approved and distributed.

Actions we need to take come through loud and clear in our research. By ‘we’, I mean all of us – governments, civil society, parents, community leaders, religious leaders, global citizens, men, boys, women, girls. While our research focused on FGM/C in a few countries in Africa, the practice is widespread, with a 2020 report from the End FGM European Network, End FGM/C US Network and Equality Now finding that “FGM/C is present in at least 92 countries” around the world.  

Three actions we must take now stand out for me which connect to the theme of this year’s International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation “No Time for Global Inaction: Unite, Fund, and Act to End Female Genital Mutilation”. These actions I’m highlighting are also supported by the Global Platform for Action to End FGM/C and the more than 900 organizations and individuals who have signed on to its Call To Action.

  1. Mainstream: We will not succeed in ending FGM/C if it remains in a silo. FGM/C interventions must be integrated into crisis response and recovery (such as a pandemic) as well as broader gender-based violence, health, and development programming.
  2. Invest in community-led solutions: For change to last, it must be led from within and involve the entire community. Governments must invest to scale up community-led programs that are proven to work and support innovative approaches that can help in preventing FGM/C as well as offer protection and response services during a pandemic such as COVID-19.
  3. Make services ‘essential’: Services for survivors and girls and women at risk of FGM/C must be deemed ‘essential’ so they can continue to operate during a pandemic or other emergencies. Failing to do so puts girls and women at increased risk of undergoing FGM/C and isolates survivors from much-needed support.

We can’t wait for COVID-19 vaccines to reach the general public and life to return to ‘normal’ before governments, civil society and communities unite, fund and act to end FGM/C. We know what needs to be done to protect girls and young women from FGM/C, even in a pandemic. Now, all we need is the will to do it.