FGM in Emergency and Humanitarian Contexts
Emergencies increase the risk of FGM
During the 2020 stakeholder dialogue on Female Genital Mutilation in humanitarian & crisis contexts, participants from 31 countries shared information from their field-work or research on how the risk of FGM and the possibilities of providing care to survivors is affected by these types of crises.
Below we have listed the main issues raised by participants and in the currently available research. In-depth information can be found in the global report of the stakeholder dialogue.
First of all, in times of humanitarian crisis the problems are multiplied within a community meaning that most efforts are spent on issues defined as urgent (food, water, housing, security) or immediate life-threatening conditions. This goes some way towards explaining why FGM has often been a neglected issue within the humanitarian sector.
Harmful practices and other forms of GBV increase due to insecurity
In emergency contexts, the general breakdown in law and order and in protective societal norms increases population vulnerability, notably for women and girls. Social connections are disrupted, and economic hardship increases due to limited job opportunities. The lack of protection and stability resulting from fragile contexts often contributes to enhanced violence against women and girls.
In times of economic hardship or natural disaster for example, parents or caregivers may be driven to subject their daughters to FGM in communities where this enhances a girl’s “chance” of being married. Marrying a daughter in times of crisis is a way for families to gain financial relief through the bride price and to ensure that girls are “protected” and provided for in wedlock. FGM may be practiced even by families who are aware of short, medium and long-term harm because of the perceived immediate benefits. Sometimes, FGM takes place to save the family “honor”, particularly if a girl was a victim of rape during armed conflict. (Coalition for Adolescent Girls, 2012)
When a community is faced with insecurity, efforts to maintain or restore peace generally take up most of the attention of the authorities in a community and the rule of law will not be as strongly implemented as in times of peace. Consequently, a lack of legal protection puts women and girls at further risk of undergoing FGM, without consequences for the perpetrators.
Finally, traditional cutters may also experience instability and hardships during crisis situations, which can fuel their motivation to continue and even increase the practice to generate income.
In Cameroon in September 2012, a report found that the floods placed an economic strain on families. One father from the community said, “If men come for our daughters, we would give”.
During the conflict in Yemen, families were afraid that their daughters would be victims of human trafficking or enslaved. They resort to FGM and child marriage for what appears to be a safer option. (stakeholder participant)
Participants in the Virtual International Stakeholder Dialogue specifically stressed the need to find ways to discuss FGM with communities while at the same time addressing their key priorities in times of crisis.
When schools close, more girls are at risk
Being in class provides a form of protection and prevention for girls in communities where FGM is prevalent. In fact, while FGM may be practiced individually, in many communities there are so called “cutting seasons” which take advantage of prolonged periods of school closures, such as (in normal times) school holidays, in order for ceremonies to take place and to provide the necessary time for wounds from the cut to heal.
In times of crisis, schools close and the protection that the classroom provided for girls collapses. In 2020 the COVID pandemic resulted in “cutting seasons” taking place earlier in certain regions in some countries such as Kenya and Nigeria.
In December 2020 it was reported that 2,800 girls from the Kuria community in south-western Kenya had undergone FGM during a COVID related seven month long school closure.
Across South-West Nigeria there was an increase in numbers of girls being cut as a result of school closures due to the COVID pandemic. At the same time, FGM prevention and protection efforts were unavailable due to social distancing and travel restrictions (Orchid Project, 2020)
Population displacement changes the dynamics around FGM
The stakeholder dialogue showed that when FGM practicing communities are forced to move, they might pre-empt the practice of FGM before undertaking the journey. The reason may be that communities are aware that the practice is illegal in the region they are moving to, that families prefer to have their daughters undergo FGM by a ‘trusted cutter’, or that FGM is perceived as a form of protection for the girls, particularly from sexual violence (typically type III FGM). Hence, FGM may be carried out at a different age than that which is typically the norm in that community, either at an earlier age (even on infants), or at a later age (during adulthood).
When Somali Bantu refugees were resettled to the United States, many circumcised their daughters in the camps (some as young as one and a half) once they were informed that FGM is a criminal offense in the country of resettlement (Munala, 2003)
As people move, they might also learn the practice from the communities they have moved into. Social pressure, the need to integrate in a new community and to ensure daughters are accepted as future brides play a key role in this phenomenon.
In Mali, Plan International discovered that the daughters of displaced families from the North who are living amongst host communities in the South were looked at differently for not being circumcised. This led to families from the North feeling pressure to perform FGM on their daughters. (DFID, 2013)
A journalist reported that Syrian refugees in Egypt, where FGM is a widespread practice, had girls undergo the practice in order to ensure marriageability of daughters. (EU Observer, 25 Sept. 2017)
Impact of crisis on FGM survivors
In times of crisis, forms of gender-based violence may increase and multiply. For example, rape of girls and women is used as a weapon during armed conflicts. Rape can be particularly dangerous if a girl has been subjected to FGM, because she will most likely suffer greater complications, injuries and health problems.
In refugee camps in Sudan, girls as young as ten were found pregnant as a result of rape, having undergone FGM as young children, almost dying in childbirth. (28 Too Many, 2014)
In times of crisis, resources are limited and sanitary conditions poor. This increases the probability of infections after FGM limits the access to specialised treatment for FGM complications. In these contexts, health professionals, including psychologists, are present in insufficient numbers and their training on FGM is often insufficient.
In Kenya, a number of emergency situations such as locust invasions, droughts and floods has lead to population displacement, scarce livelihoods and submerging hospitals and health centres. This makes it extremely hard for FGM survivors to receive adequate care. (expert from AMREF during stakeholder dialogue)
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