The COVID-19 pandemic is increasing the risk of female genital mutilation or FGM, with the UN predicting that an additional two million girls will be subjected to the practice in the next ten years.

The UN says that COVID-19 has disproportionately affected girls and women, resulting in what it calls “a shadow pandemic” disrupting the elimination of all harmful customs including, female genital mutilation.

Leading United Nations agencies and human rights activists warn the COVID-19 pandemic puts girls at great risk of FGM, which thrives in isolation.  They noted lockdowns and school closures make girls particularly vulnerable to abuse.  

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) includes all procedures that involve the partial or total removal of external genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.

The World Health Organization (WHO) classifies FGM into four types, and all four types are all practiced in Nigeria.

Type I: partial or total removal of the clitoris and/or the prepuce (Clitoridectomy). Subgroups of Type I FGM are: type Ia, removal of the clitoral hood or prepuce only; type Ib, removal of the clitoris with the prepuce.

Type II: partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora (excision).

Subgroups of Type II FGM are: type IIa, removal of the labia minora only; type IIb, partial or total removal of the clitoris and labia minora; type IIc, partial or total removal of the clitoris, labia minora& labia majora.

Type III: narrowing of the vaginal orifice with creation of a covering seal by cutting and appositioning the labia minora and/or the labia majora, with or without excision of the clitoris (infibulation).  Subgroups of Type III FGM are: type IIIa, removal and apposition of the labia minora; type IIIb, removal and apposition of the labia majora.

Reinfibulation is covered under this definition. This is a procedure to recreate an infibulation, for example after childbirth when defibulation is necessary.

Type IV: unclassified – all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for nonmedical purposes, for example, pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterization.

Type IV also includes the practice of “massaging” or applying petroleum jelly, herbal concoctions or hot water to the clitoris to desensitize it or pushing it back into the body, which is common in many parts of Nigeria, especially Imo State.

FGM has no known health benefit, and is harmful to girls and women. It involves altering, removing and/or damaging otherwise healthy female genital tissue.

It is estimated that over 200 million girls and women worldwide are living with the effects of FGM, and every year some 3 million girls and women are at risk of FGM and are therefore exposed to its potential negative health consequences (UNICEF 2016).

FGM has multiple negative consequences in the lives of girls and women, including medical, psychological, emotional and social problems, and even loss of life. Girls subjected to FGM are also at risk of early/child marriage, dropping out of school, and reduced opportunities for growth, development and sustainable incomes.  While communities cite numerous reasons for having girls undergo FGM, as a gendered harmful practice, it is an expression of power and control over girls’ and women’s bodies and their sexuality.

FGM as a form of genderbased violence (GBV) is rooted in unequal power relations between men and women that are embedded in a system that sustains itself through discriminatory gender stereotypes and norms, and unequal access to and control over resources.

For girls and women with limited skills, competencies, and assets, marriage is often a matter of economic security and social inclusion. As a result, FGM is often performed to enhance a girl’s marriageability. Although parents may be aware of the risks involved with FGM, they will often have their daughters undergo the practice as the gains (economic security and social inclusion) outweigh the loss (health consequences).

Emergency situations such as COVID-19 routinely lead to increased rates of gender based violence (GBV) including FGM, and UNFPA Minimum Standards on GBV in Emergencies require an assumption that violence increases during these periods.

Comprehensive evidence and information confirms that COVID-19 has intensified domestic and gender-based violence globally. Curfews and ‘stay at home’ orders have resulted in the shutting down of schools, safe houses, churches, and other forms of refuges for girls at risk of FGM.

Most lockdown orders have been implemented in high-prevalence FGM areas without exemption for girls at risk, reducing access to essential GBV and protection services, and disrupting vital and life-saving referral pathways. Emergency situations resulting in increased sexual violence also place survivors of FGM at greater risk of compounded physical and mental health impacts as a result of existing trauma and physical health impacts of FGM.

The Inter-Agency Minimum Standards for GBV in Emergencies programming requires the provision of quality, survivor-centred health, creation and maintenance of referral systems and pathways, and safe spaces for women and girls.

Equally, the Minimum Standards for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action (Standard 9), requires that “all children are informed about and protected from sexual and gender-based violence and have access to survivor-centred response services”, and makes explicit reference to FGC as a form of GBV.

FGM is a violation of the human rights of women and girls, which is held in place by, and reinforces discriminatory genderstereotypes and norms that define the limits of a girl’s aspirations and sexuality, and cause serious health impacts across her life.

Ending FGM requires the displacement of harmful gender norms, which would potentially transform the lives of millions of women and girls and accelerate progress towards gender equality.

In certain contexts, FGM acts as a precursor to child marriage and marks a girl’s transition into womanhood. This shift has significant implications for girls’ access to education and future economic empowerment.

Female genital mutilation (FGM), much like COVID-19, is a global issue that requires a global response. 200 million women and girls around the world are affected by the practice.

It is grounded in discriminatory gender norms, and has significant health and socio-economic impacts on women throughout their lives.

Ending the practice would have a transformative effect for women and girls, with accelerated progress essential to achieving Sustainable Development Goal 5, on gender equality, and supporting all the other Agenda 2030 goals.

During times of crisis, states have a duty to prevent and mitigate gender-based violence, including FGM. Yet we are not seeing effective, gender-based and intersectional policy-making in relation to COVID-19 pandemic, despite increased vulnerabilities for certain groups.

Despite significantly higher rates of death amongst men, the innumerable short-term and long-term impacts of COVID-19, and the responses to contain it, have fallen disproportionately on the burden of women and girls worldwide.

Alongside this, the rise of a ‘shadow pandemic’ of gender-based violence (GBV) lays bare the stark realities of systemic inequality and discrimination, and the continuing failure at global, regional and national levels to effectively apply a gender and intersectional lens to policy making, even in emergency response and recovery.

Where COVID-19 response and recovery plans have been put in place in a gender-inclusive way, these largely ignore or fail to account for the particular needs and lived experiences of women and girls that are at risk of, or are survivors of FGM.

Emergency situations and humanitarian crises, including health epidemics, have disproportionate impacts on women and girlsand exacerbate these existing structural gender inequalities, which lie at the heart of FGM.

Applying a gender-lens to the COVID-19 response is vital in continuing and accelerating work to end FGM, and all forms of gender-based violence, in order to achieve SDG 5 by 2030.

In the last decade, landmark international agreements, including the International Conference on Population and Development(ICPD) Programme of Action, the Beijing Platform for Action and the 2012 UN General Assembly Resolution (A/RES/67/146) haveaddressed FGM as a central issue to the promotion of gender equality and sustainable development.

Some regional African and European instruments, such as the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol) and the Istanbul Convention, also exist that specifically address FGM and are key to findingsustainable solutions to combat the practice.

These human rights agreements recognise the practice of FGM as a form of gender-based violence, as a violation of women’s and girls’ rights and as a violation of their sexual and reproductive rights.

Increased rates of FGM are being reported across cutting communities, where COVID-19 related lockdowns are being seen as an opportunity to carry out FGM undetected. Women, men and families in FGM affected communities have higher priorities than the abandonment of FGM, such as access to health, education, sanitation, agricultural improvement and food processing, among others.

It is crucial to incorporate the abandonment of FGM as a key element in achieving development objectives in these areas.

Evidence suggests that when addressed within broader development programmes, FGM prevention interventions are more effective and well received by affected communities, because such programmes assist them in overcoming other pressing issues and  challenges that affect their daily lives and access to basic needs.

Rather than developing programmes focusing exclusively on the prevention of FGM, the most effective interventions –both financially and in terms of decreasing prevalence rates – seem to be those that address the abandonment of the practice within broader development policies, programmes and projects.

Such programmes and projects may focus on sexual and reproductive health and rights (including HIV/AIDS prevention and provision of SRHR services), as well as on safe motherhood, child mortality and health and women’s empowerment, including access to education and economic opportunities.

Others may integrate FGM into more comprehensive programmes on rural and industrial development and poverty reduction.

FGM is a global human rights violation that cuts across Africa, the Middle East, Asia, North America and Europe. The global dimension of FGM requires the development of transnational and transcontinental interventions, focussed on building bridges between communities living both in Europe and in affected continents, particularly Africa.

Programmes should favour a bottom-up approach, promoting the direct involvement of the whole community and involving all relevant stakeholders, including men, young people, community leaders, policy makers, and the media.

More importantly, FGM must be integrated within a broader development policy framework that includes a gender and women’s rights perspective.

The current SDG process provides an opportune time for this to be addressed. As it stands, The Final Proposal Paper (July 2014) published by The Open Working Group (the group tasked with overseeing the SDG process) includes a target to end FGM and all other harmful practices within the goal to “achieve gender equality and empower women and girls” (Open Working Group, 2014).

It is critical that this target is retained and reflected in the final framework.

In Conclusion, it is very important that we mainstream the abandonment of FGM in broader development policies, programmes and projects across several sectors, including health, governance, education, culture and economic empowerment, using a comprehensive, integrated and human rights based approach.

At this point, I will stop the conversation so we can reflect on the key points discussed as I entertain any questions. 

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