Covid & FGM

What can we learn from the Ebola pandemic?


When the COVID-19 pandemic started many people remembered the Ebola pandemic and wondered what – if anything – we could learn from the impact that Ebola had on FGM. 

The case of Sierra Leone

Based on the article by David Schwartz, 2019, The Ebola Epidemic Halted Female Genital Cutting in Sierra Leone: Temporarily: Medical, Anthropological, and Public Health Perspectives, In: “Pregnant in the Time of Ebola”. Access here

Prior to the Ebola virus epidemic, statistics showed that Sierra Leone had one of the highest prevalence of FGM in the world (88% up to 89.6%). At some point, the prevalence rate exceeded 90% for the 15–49 age group. Even though numbers are a cause of concern, there is no national law in Sierra Leone making the practice of FGM unlawful.

FGM in Sierra Leone is promoted and practiced by a woman’s secret society,  The “Bondo’ society” which is said to have so much power both socially and politically, that it can ensure women vote for one candidate over another.

When the Ebola epidemic spread through Sierra Leone in 2014, the government placed a temporary ban of FGM to prevent further transmission of the disease. It was feared that the infection would be transmitted to girls being circumcised or even to the sowei’s (cutters) themselves. The FGM ban during Ebola imposed a fine of 500,000 Leones (about USD $115) on anyone performing the procedure. It is said that by the end of the epidemic in Sierra Leone, the ban on FGM had resulted in the most dramatic decline in history.

It is also during the Ebola epidemic that the government of Sierra Leone ratified the Maputo Protocol on July 2, 2015 (12 years after the country had initially signed the document). This instrument guarantees comprehensive rights to women in Africa including Article 5 providing an end to FGM.

Because of Ebola, the power of the Bondo society had been reduced to nothing. Reducing their power was also a threat to their livelihood. The president of the National Council of Soweis (cutters) in Sierra Leone, Mammy Koloneh expressed that during the outbreak, about 2000 soweis were affected. No one took care of them, they struggled to find food and have their basic needs covered. At that time, she advocated for FGM to continue as it is always had for generations.

When Sierra Leone was declared Ebola free by the WHO in November 2015, the former president Ernest Koroma said in his speech that traditional practices which have a negative impact on health, and which were discontinued during the outbreak, should not be returned to.

However, the end of the epidemic was the start of “business as usual” by the country’s soweis. Some cutters were arrested but the practice went on despite the ban. 

Zihalirwa Nalwage, a child protection expert with UNICEF said that punitive measures taken during the Ebola epidemic would not be useful in eliminating FGM practices, and would only drive the procedure underground. He instead suggested a strategy which upholds tradition and gives the soweis an important cultural role in society, but one which doesn’t involve cutting.

Anti-FGM activists in the country used the break to advocate for abandonment of the practice.

Read the full article here: David Schwartz, 2019, The Ebola Epidemic Halted Female Genital Cutting in Sierra Leone: Temporarily: Medical, Anthropological, and Public Health Perspectives, In: “Pregnant in the Time of Ebola”. Access here

In their policy brief on the effects of COVID-19 on FGM, ORCHID Project emphasized the negative effects of Ebola and Zika seen on women’s access to SRHR services. Essential SRHR services were often diverted or shut down  in favour of responding directly to the immediate health impacts of the viruses. For example, in Liberia during the 2013-16 Ebola epidemic, there is evidence that more women died of obstetric complications than from Ebola itself.

The organization also pointed to the differences in perception between Ebola and Covid-19, affecting its impact on FGM: 

“in West Africa, local organisations instead point to a community perception that COVID-19 is not as serious as Ebola, which has resulted in a weaker adherence to  lockdown rules. Social norms-based harmful practices are therefore likely to continue secretly during COVID-19.”

Read the report here: Orchid Project, September 2020, Policy briefing: Impacts of COVID-19 on female genital cutting (FGC). Access here.

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