Somalia has the highest rate of female genital mutilation (FGM) of any country in the world — and COVID-19 lockdowns, although necessary, have far from slowed down the practice.
In fact, being locked down at home is exposing girls to a greater risk of undergoing FGM.
The procedures are usually carried out during school holidays in urban settings or during the rainy season in rural areas, according to Plan International, a global development and humanitarian organisation that advocates for girls’ and children’s rights.
“The lockdown is being seen as an opportune time for the procedure to be carried out in the home with ample time for healing,” said Sadia Allin, head of mission at Plan International Somalia.
In Somalia, 98% of girls and women aged between 15 and 49 have undergone various forms of FGM. Many are cut between the ages of five and 11.
Plan International and its local partner Somaliland National Network Against FGM (NAFIS) said the number of FGM-related phone calls they receive has increased during COVID-19 lockdowns.
“One of the cases we have recorded is of two sisters aged eight and nine who were cut last week and who are still trying to come to terms with what happened to them,” Allin said. She added that FGM is seen as critical part of reaching womanhood in Somalia, as well as being a religious rite of passage and a pre-condition for marriage.
But the COVID-19 lockdown in the country has added an economic motive to FGM too.
Allin said: “The economic turndown is also motivating the cutters to resort to harmful livelihood options, and they are knocking door-to-door to cut girls.”
FGM is practiced in 29 countries in Africa, while 3 million girls in Africa are at risk of undergoing FGM every year. Significant progress against the practice has been made in recent years, but the COVID-19 outbreak is now threatening this progress.
According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the COVID-19 pandemic will result in an additional 2 million cases of FGM over the next decade, which would have been avoided had there been no outbreak.
But COVID-19 is also having a worrying impact on other areas concerning gender equality and gender-based violence — including sparking increasing rates of child marriage and other forms of violence against girls, as well as impacting the provision of contraceptives and family planning.
The UNFPA said that, without any intervention, lockdown-related disruptions could leave 47 million women in low and middle income countries without access to contraceptives — resulting in 7 million unwanted pregnancies.
Dr. Natalia Kanem, UNFPA’s executive director, said: “The pandemic is deepening inequalities, and millions more women and girls now risk losing the ability to plan their families and protect their bodies and their health.”
On April 30, global advocacy organisation Girls Not Brides wrote an open letter to the African Union asking the continental body to prioritise protecting girls’ rights.
The letter warned that school closures, increasing hunger, and other outcomes of COVID-19 could increase the risk of child marriage, gender-based violence (GBV), teenage pregnancy, and exploitation, particularly in the poorest African nations, such as Niger, Mali, and South Sudan.
The letter explained: “Many of the complex factors that drive child marriage are also exacerbated in emergency settings, as family and community structures break down during crises.”
It added: “A pandemic of this nature presents unique challenges that require action to protect adolescent girls from violence and exploitation, both in the response and recovery phases.”
Poverty is a known driver of child marriage — with families more likely to marry off daughters in times of economic stress to alleviate the perceived burden of caring for them — the anticipated economic fallout of the pandemic is expected to result in millions more early marriages.
Earlier this month, the Thomson Reuters Foundation reported that more than 500 girls in northern Ethiopia had been rescued from forced marriages since the country lockdown.
“It is expected that 13 million more child marriages could take place by 2030 than would have otherwise,” the UNFPA said.