New discussion: How does Covid-19 affect FGM?

These last couple of weeks, the world has been struck by Covid-19 (Coronavirus). It affects all of us differently. Many countries are in “lock down”, professionals in NGOs and companies are working remotely while health professionals are working long shifts to take care of those affected by the virus.

Since the beginning of this pandemic we have seen discussions and papers on the links between Covid-19 and gender-based violence. Feminist organisations and professionals have highlighted that epidemics, like other crisis situations, affect women and men differently and make existing inequalities and discrimination worse (see Equality Now’s brief : COVID-19: A time for strength, humanity and kindness). Confinement results in an increased domestic burden for many women and it means that some women are forced to stay at home with a violent partner. Increased pressure during economic hardship due to  the pandemic may also result in increased household conflict and possibly violence. We have gathered some references on the link between Covid-19 and GBV here 

The consequences of the Covid-19 crisis on Female genital mutilation has been addressed by a few organisations. We wanted to raise this issue with the members of the Community of Practice, although it is of course too early to have evidence-based information.

Everlyne Komba, member of the CoP FGM, addressed the link between FGM and Covid-19 in Kenya in her piece for the END FGM EU Network: “The ongoing pandemic has created the perfect conditions for proponents of FGM and early marriage to carry out their perverted motives. The closure of schools, a pause by rule of law for institutions and organs alongside an overwhelmed health system including requirements for social distancing has created a conducive condition resulting in the resumption of FGM and early marriage activities.”

On Social media we have seen a general conversation from NGOs, Community based organizations, UN agencies and activists on the possible effects of COVID-19 on women everywhere with an expected  rise of Gender based Violence and Harmful Traditional Practices like Female Genital Mutilation in practicing communities. The Executive Director of UNFPA, Dr Natalie Kanam, in her recent post on twitter warned that “the Coronavirus outbreak has severely disrupted access to sexual and reproductive health and gender based violence services at a time where women and girls need these services the most” (See World Economic Forum brief: COVID19: Coronavirus hit women harder than men) In the  twitter conference by the EndCuttingGirls, the UNFPA-UNICEF joint youth advocacy network on FGM abandonment in Nigeria has suggested some possible linkages between the rise of FGM and lockdowns in various communities . It is believed that practicing communities are likely to take advantage of the schools’ closure to mutilate young girls.This will lead to a rise in the number of girls exposed to FGM. It is also feared that precautions from WHO could not be properly observed, creating, thus, a possible avenue for the transmission of the virus. (Find more here : EndCuttingGirls Twitter conference

Just like EndCuttingGirls, Anti-FGM campaigners like Sadia Isaack strongly believe that girls are at a higher risk now they are confined in their homes leaving them with no room for access to hospitalization after FGM, this further exposing them to more harm (More here: Anti-FGM campaigner Sadia Isaack). In videos shared by the Global Media Campaign to End FGM, we have seen Sadia Isaack and other anti-FGM campaigners like Shujaa Sadia Hussein calling global leaders and governments to take swift actions especially the use of the media to sensitize communities and get to these girls (More here: Anti-FGM campaigner Shujaa Sadia Hussien). The Global Media Campaign to End FGM has shifted its communication to cater for COVID19 and its relation to FGM. More here: GMCEndFGM). Conversations on social media are calling global leaders and UN agencies to respond to the COVID-19 with a feminist lens and center women in the discourse. Finally, we can read calls to adopt a  holistic approach to meet the needs of the different demographics with clear knowledge that it affects everyone differently. Examples have been shared in the recent twitter chat by Equals Now from The Gambia here and the UNFPA-UNICEF global programme to end FGM GirlChat

The available information raises a number of questions and allows us to make a few hypothesis on how Covid-19 will affect FGM and the anti-FGM movement: 

–   What is the impact on cross-border and cross-community practice ? Example, some Counties in Kenya are restricting movement between Counties.

– Now that schools are closing, will “cutting seasons” start again in some communities? 

– Some experts have also suggested a higher risk of forced marriage in communities that face economic issues due to COVID19. Is this something that you have seen in your community? Which possible solutions can we identify? Do you think this could in turn increase the practice of FGM?

The work of professionals supporting women/girls at risk of or survivors of FGM is also  highly affected by the pandemic. Community-based activities to support survivors are more and more difficult in many communities. 

In Belgium, for example, GAMS Be (the main anti-FGM organization) has suspended their physical meetings and activities in their offices but continue to provide support and information to the women and girls they work with remotely, including psycho-social support, information on Covid19 in languages spoken by migrant communities in Belgium, and even online group discussions.

We asked the members to share their experience and their current working situation. 

  • Has the current situation resulted in new partnerships, for instance with the health sector or with NGOs working targeting other vulnerable groups?
  • In many societies social distancing measures force us to find new ways to communicate and stay in touch with FGM survivors like  WhatsApp groups and/or hotlines – which tools are you using to keep in touch with your colleages and with your target groups?
  • Do you think there is a need to adapt FGM Prevention campaigns to the situation? 

A final concern linked to the access to health care services was brought to members’ attention.

  • What the consequences on medical services and SRHR for FGM survivors will be when medical services are overwhelmed by COVID – is this something that you see in your communities?

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