• Charles Ugwu

World over and also in Nigeria, emergency situations routinely lead to increased rates of gender based violence (GBV) including female genital mutilation (FGM).

Recently, comprehensive evidence and information increasingly revealed that COVID-19 has both directly and indirectly intensified domestic and gender-based violence globally, FGM inclusive.

Sequel to this, it has become imperative, therefore, to critically examine “The impact of FGM on the health and wellbeing of girls and women in a COVID-19 world” with a view to proffering sustainable solutions.

FGM comprises “all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for nonmedical reasons.”

There are different forms of FGM, some of which involve more radical excisions in the genital area than others.  

FGM has 4 types, Clitoridectomy; Excision; Infibulation; & Unclassified (e.g. “pressing” the clitoris with hot water)

The origin and significance of FGM practice is shrouded in secrecy, uncertainty and fraught with controversy either as an initiation ceremony of young girls into womanhood or to ensure virginity and curb promiscuity, or to protect female modesty and chastity.

FGM demonstrates deep-rooted gender inequalities and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women. It is also a serious violation of the rights of girls’ health, security, integrity, dignity, and freedom.  

FGM is not required by any religion and there is no scientific evidence that women who have been mutilated are more faithful or better wives than those who have not undergone the procedure.  

It is therefore very clear that there is no single benefit derived from FGM and possible medical complications includes but not limited to: severe bleeding, cysts, infections, difficulty urinating, issues with childbirth and even death.  

For more information about basic facts about FGM, visit www.endcuttinggirls.org Also do well to follow the handle “Endcuttinggirls Nigeria’’ on all social media platforms for constant updates about the endFGM campaign.  

You can also visit who.int or watch https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dj_XQZebXI0

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.

It is a universally known fact that moments of crisis inadvertently increase the vulnerabilities for women and girls to gender based violence and other forms of exploitation.

Unfortunately, today, we are already witnessing the economic and societal impacts of COVID-19 undoing years of progress by global and local efforts to end FGM.

UNFPA has reported that an additional two million cases of FGM will need to be averted to meet Agenda 2030 as a result of COVID-19’s delays to FGM programming.

In many ways, the global COVID-19 crisis has been increasingly linked to an elevated rate of female genital mutilation (FGM) across the globe.  

Economic hardship is also driving increased rates of FGM because of parents seeking ‘bride prices’ and, in some cases, cutters returning to the practice having previously abandoned it.

Restricted access to communities for community-based organisations (CBOs) carrying out FGM programming may be resulting in increased rates of cutting and lack of accurate data.

Overall, global and national responses to COVID-19 resulted in restricted freedom of movement, with the unintended consequences that access to prevention, protection and care services, including psychosocial support, have been seriously curtailed.

Lockdowns and curfews also mean that girls are kept out of school where they are at greater risk of FGM, whilst protection, health and justice services are diverted to deal with implementing curfews and responding directly to the pandemic.

Nationwide lockdowns results in girls staying at home where they are at greater risk of FGM, with no exemptions in place for girls at risk or survivors of the practice.

Additionally, the risk of being cut becomes greater in events of school closures, whilst prevention and protection efforts becomes decreased or unavailable due to social distancing and travel restrictions.

Blanket lockdowns and stay-at-home orders have also resulted in the closure of safe spaces for girls at risk and survivors of FGM.

To a large extent, there was also a diversion of medical services and resources towards direct COVID-19 responses at the expense of gender based issues and services.

Mental health and psychosocial support services have also failed to be classified as essential services during this period.  

During this pandemic, some shelters were also closed down without provision of alternatives for women and girls at risk of FGM.

Where shelters or alternative options are available they are seriously hampered by a lack of funding and limited spaces available.

During the peak of the pandemic, health care providers were providing ‘essential’ services only, which has not included vital broader health services for women and girls at risk or survivors of FGM.

These so-called ‘essential’ services during lockdown were also inaccessible by women and girls in remote areas, and as a result of public curfews and limited transportation options.

Measures for monitoring and reporting suspected cases of FGM for girls at risk have also come under considerable strain during lockdown.  

Beyond hotline telephone services, community-based surveillance methods have been curtailed during lockdown, with a disproportionate effect on women and girls in hard to reach or rural areas.

Economically, whilst lockdown orders have broadly impacted economies and have led to shortages and price rises on basic necessities, local livelihoods have also been seriously impacted.  

It was possible that former cutters may have returned to providing FGM services as a way of making money whilst more formal economic roles and opportunities are limited.

Beyond the direct impacts of COVID-19 on rates and modalities of the practice of FGM itself, myriad of other indirect negative impacts abound.

First, the pandemic and governmental responses to contain COVID-19 are largely acknowledged to have had considerable negative impacts on the functioning of civil society organizations (CSOs) and activists working to end the practice.

The realities of the pandemic delayed programmatic activities aimed at ending FGM at organizational and grass root level.

Restrictions on travel and movement are preventing a wide range of organizations that are not community-based from accessing communities to carry out vital social norms-based work to end the practice.

Where organizations and activists are community-based, social distancing rules mean that their usual activities including women’s forums, community dialogues, training and capacity building activities are having to be drastically reduced.  

In order to conquer this challenge, the world must innovatively rise against all the odds. Some recommendations below might be helpful.

There should be an increased use of social media, behavior change communications and digital technologies to reach communities with girls at risk

There is need for urgent increase in funding to grassroots and women-led organizations working to end FGM, including greater provision for emergency, flexible cash-based assistance during humanitarian crises.

Gender based violence (GBV) and sexual and reproductive health services (SRHR) should be recognized as ‘essential’, to allow service providers to continue to operate during emergencies

  • There is need for grassroots organizations and activists to innovatively adapt to COVID-19 by adopting mitigating strategies and best practices.
  • For instance, the numbers of participants in community-based program initiatives can be reduced per time.
  • Also, community-based meetings can be help in the open and outdoor spaces with social distancing, as well as the adequate use of face masks, soap and hand sanitizer.

There should also be greater usage of WhatsApp, social media and communication platforms to sustain sensitization as well as organize, mobilize, and share key information with relevant stakeholders.

There should be creation of digital and mobile phone apps to stimulate dialogue and social norms change as well as sharing pre-recorded podcasts through bluetooth for non smart phone users.

There should be a nationwide collation of lists of service providers and maintenance of updated referral pathways

There should be increased used of the media such as Radio and TV ‘jingles’ as well as sponsored advertisements on social media.

There should be establishment and strengthening of local ‘Neighbourhood Watch Group’ members in communities to provide an informal policing system and deterrent effect for FGM.

COVID-19 still remains a reality with no specific date in view when the world will totally overcome the pandemic.

It is therefore pertinent for us to rise against all odds and innovatively sustain/accelerate the campaign to end FGM completely in this generation.

The complete eradication of FGM by the year 2030 is possible. Our work is to accelerate the process.  

Thanks for being part of our conversations today. Join us every other Thursday 5-7pm. Visit our website www.endcuttinggirls.org and kindly follow the handle “Endcuttinggirls Nigeria’’ on all social media platforms.  .

It’s time to hear and respond to your questions and/or opinions based on the conference. Keep them coming.