On the onset of the Covid-19 crisis, it became clear to me that the pandemic would have a large impact on our efforts to end Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C). We already know from previous epidemics that girls and women are hit the hardest in those crisis situations. The potential risks and threats to the global efforts to eliminate FGM/C are numerous, although we don’t know exactly (yet) how Covid-19 will impact the lives of girls and women worldwide.
Although data and research is lacking, it is necessary for civil society organizations, UN agencies and governments to have a strategy to cope with the impending consequences of the pandemic. Therefore, we took the initiative – at a very early stage of the pandemic – to organize a webinar series on the impact of Covid-19 on our efforts to end FGM/C.
The aim of this webinar series is to share first-hand experiences, knowledge and evidence from the field to inform various stakeholders (including NGOs, UN agencies, governments, donors and researchers) what is currently happening. We provide a platform and give a voice to activists, campaigners, NGOs and government officials to share their important insights on how Covid-19 is currently impacting their work towards ending FGM/C.
In the end, we combine these insights with existing data and research, as it is important to make sure that the right actions (based on evidence) are being taken in the upcoming weeks, months and years.
The first webinar was organized the 22nd of April 2020 and focused on the situation in Tanzania. This webinar was organized in cooperation with Janet Chapman (Tanzania Development Trust), Rhobi Samwelly (director of Hope for Girls and Women Tanzania) and Anna Holmström (Regional Manager for Development Cooperation at Felm). We also invited Michael Marwa, the Director of the Tanzania National Child Helpline to share with us his experiences in relation to whether there is a difference due to Covid-19 in relation to the Child Helpline.
After a quick round of introduction, I started the webinar with a presentation in which I aimed to answer four different questions on the impact of Covid-19 on ending FGM/C:
First of all, I took this opportunity to share information and evidence from reports that have been written very recently on Covid-19 and FGM/C (or Violence Against Women or Harmful Practices more in general), including working papers, the Technical Note of UNICEF on Covid-19 and Harmful Practices and documents of other UN agencies such as UN Women and WHO that were published only a few days ago. When studying these documents, I found that there is little evidence available yet on the effect of the pandemic on the number of girls and women that undergo FGM/C worldwide. Emerging data shows a clear increase in domestic violence and violence against women in general due to Covid-19, but there is no evidence yet whether that is the case for FGM/C specifically as well.
Since data and research on the impact of Covid-19 on FGM/C is currently very limited, it is too early to have evidence-based information. I therefore turned to the expectations of experts. Dr. Natalia Kanem, Executive Director of UNFPA stated the following: “As with most crises, this pandemic has severely disrupted access to life-saving sexual and reproductive health services and hampered authorities’ ability to respond to gender-based violence, at a time when women and girls need these services most.” In addition, organizations like the World Economic Forum and Equality Now also expect an increase in child marriage and a higher incidence in FGM/C during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Learnings from Ebola?
When I was reading the Technical Note of UNICEF to prepare this first webinar, one aspect immediately stood out: the comparison between the Ebola-crisis and Covid-19. The Technical Note provides us with a few major take-aways in relation to the prevalence of FGM/C during the current global health crisis. Even though Covid-19 is a different virus with different symptoms and transmission routes, there are many similarities as well. For example, schools were closed, people had to keep distance from one another, etc. Interestingly enough, during the Ebola crisis FGM/C prevalence numbers decreased (even though child marriage increased), as leaders called for an end to FGM/C to prevent the spread of the virus. This is a rare, but positive consequence of a crisis situation could also mean an essential opportunity for the elimination of FGM/C. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen after the Ebola-crisis. After the interruption of FGM/C, and a drastic decline over two years, FGM/C resumed when the Ebola-crisis was over. An academic article of 2019 reports the following: “When the Ebola epidemic was over in 2015, there was a return to “business as usual” by the country’s soweis and FGC has returned.” However, developments like this in a particular crisis situation are – to my mind – important to take into consideration and possibly anticipate on during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Situation in Tanzania
Rhobi Samwelly, director of Hope for Girls and Women Tanzania, shared her experience from the field as she is running two safe houses (in Mugumu and Butiama) for girls that ran away due to a fear to undergo FGM/C. She explained the challenges she currently faces due to Covid-19. For example, since the ‘cutting season’ has started early and is ongoing because schools have closed due to Covid-19, Rhobi is dealing with an increasing number of girls which means more overcrowding and great pressure on budgets. Although Rhobi has taken measures to mitigate overcrowding and the risk of infection with and spread of Covid-19, the pressure on the food-budget is especially troubling since due to Covid-19 the prices may rise as well. On top of such practical problems, Hope for Girls has also had to cease other activities, such as the community outreach program geared towards changing the attitudes of the general public regarding FGM/C because of travel restrictions. However, Rhobi also shared the successful installation of the Digital Champions in all 87 villages in the Serengeti. The Digital Champions, equipped with smart phones, monitor the situation in the villages, protect the girls there and can report cases to the police.
After Rhobi’s presentation, Michael Marwa, Director of the Tanzania National Child Helpline, shared the importance of the child helpline during this pandemic. Children who feel unsafe or are at risk of any type of violence can call the helpline by dialing 116. The helpline provides children with advice and support and will also visit them if necessary.
Afterwards, Anna Holmström gave a presentation. She shared her insights and worries on the negative effects of Covid-19 on the progress of FGM/C prevention in Tanzania so far. The rates of FGM/C in Tanzania have been decreasing since FGM/C was criminalized in 1998. However, she explained that there was already a need to accelerate and innovate efforts in response to the population growth and its possible negative impact on FGM/C rates. Now, with Covid-19, the challenges reinforce the need to accelerate the efforts against FGM/C even more. Anna explained that Tanzania has a good legal and policy environment and emphasized the importance of support for local initiatives such as Rhobi’s safe houses. She recommended that local partners need to receive immediate (financial) support without burdening these initiatives with difficult reporting mechanisms. Anne ended her presentation by stating that we have to make sure that we don’t lose everything that we’ve gained.
After those presentations, we opened the floor for questions. We were glad to see Tony Mwebia from the #MenEndFGM network in Kenya joined us in the webinar. He provided us with a short update on the situation in Kenya and how his organization is holding up on their running efforts against FGM/C. Tony was already using radio, podcast and tv stations to inform on the increased risk on FGM/C during the Covid-19 pandemic. He explained that chief community members are visiting households to find out about the local situation in the villages.
Rhobi also shared some important insights in response to a question from Steph from GAMS Belgium on the potential roles of traditional leaders in communities where FGM/C is still performed and quarantine has become daily reality due to the Covid-19 pandemic. According to Rhobi, young girls should be allowed to report to their religious and traditional leaders when their parents have plans to perform ‘the cut’. It makes the local communication network and outreach for Rhobi more effective as she has close connections with these traditional leaders.
In answer to the question if Rhobi is campaigning against FGM/C during the pandemic, Rhobi explains her idea for adapted alternative rites of passage. She aims for communities to continue to celebrate their girls rites of passage but limit the celebration to indoor festivities in collaboration with traditional leaders.
At the end of the webinar, I asked all participants (+/- 130 people from all over the world) to share with me their answers to four key questions:
It was great to see that my inbox overflowed after the webinar. I received loads of positive responses and I organized a follow-up webinar the 7th of May, where I could share the initial results from the research and invite more speakers to share their experiences!
The second webinar was organized the 7th of May 2020 and we decided to focus this time on the situation in Kenya. Unfortunately, in the previous two weeks, more evidence was pointing towards an increased amount of girls at riks of FGM/C due to Covid-19. For example, UNFPA published a Technical Note by the end of April estimating that “Due to pandemic-related disruptions in prevention programmes, 2 million FGM cases could occur over the next decade that would otherwise have been averted.” In addition, I also received messages from various activists in from Kenya that there is a real threat to the progress that has been made in the past decade. One participant wrote me for example: “I am afraid we will go ten steps backward to what we have achieved.” Another powerful message I shared was that of Mariam, a 10 year old girl from Kenya, who shared on Twitter that she is living in an increased fear of FGM/C.
— Shujaa_Sadia Hussein (@SadearH) May 2, 2020
During my presentation, I shared with the audience the input I received from all participants (covering not only Kenya, but many countries around the world) on my four questions (1. potential risks, 2. opportunities, 3. challenges, 4. solutions), starting with the potential risks. Girls usually undergo FGM/C during school holidays, but since the schools have been closed due to Covid-19 and girls are staying at home, the ‘cutting season’ has been extended. In addition, because of social distancing the girls fall into social isolation, preventing them from reaching out for social support or to protection networks. Another severely adverse and serious consequence of social distancing is that cutting has gone ‘underground’. One of the respondents shared with me “ You can be cut in the house and no one knows.” Finally, the restricted access to health services, and particularly Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) services, impacts girls who sadly have already underwent FGM/C and are at risk of the dangerous complications of FGM/C.
Some of the respondents were able to see and share some opportunities with me, but only a few. One opportunity that was noticed is that due to social distancing measures, large-scale cutting ceremonies have been postponed. A decrease in medicalization of FGM/C was also noticed. However, the most important opportunity is the chance to try to get FGM/C included in broader Covid-19 messaging.
However, Covid-19 predominantly confronted civil society and those who work in the field to prevent FGM/C with a lot of challenges. First of all, NGOs and campaigners are disrupted in their work; community-based activities and outreach programmes, to educate and raise awareness, have come to a halt due to lockdown and social distancing. In addition, alternative rite of passage ceremonies cannot be organized. Due to lockdowns, courts and other law enforcement institutions are or will be closed as well, meaning that the protection provided to girls at risk is very limited or has ceased. Besides the authorities not being able to prevent FGM/C, the closure of these institutions also entails that there is no deterring effect for practicing communities; they know that punishment has become very unlikely. Another very worrying development has been that in Kenya, girls safe houses have been (temporarily) closed on government orders in the belief that the safe houses are not able to comply with the measures of social distancing. As a consequence, many girls have been released back to their families, who made them undergo FGM/C or want them to undergo FGM/C, and puts them at risk of many other violations of their rights.
There are also challenges of an economic character. Since businesses and markets are closed many parents will experience a decrease in their income. To garner enough resources to live, parents could marry off their daughters, for which FGM/C is a pre-condition. On top of that, some respondents also expressed their concern that re-educated cutters, whose businesses are closed or cannot sell their goods on markets, will return to cutting. Another economic challenge is that NGOs have to deal with a drop in funding, for example due to lack of tourism.
Luckily, I also received reports of solutions our respondents came up with. A very prominent one is to provide or strengthen hotlines for girls at risk or their family members who are reluctant to make them undergo FGM/C. One of our respondents shared with me that “ Hotlines are becoming more and more important. It is the only link to the outside world.” In addition to hotlines, some respondents have continued their community outreach programmes via large-scale media, such as campaigns on radio, social media and television. However, not everyone has access to such media. A proposed solution for some of the economic problems was special resources for extra funding to civil society in times of crisis.
Situation in Kenya
In addition to Rhobi joining the webinar again who gave a short update on the situation in the two safe houses that she is running, we also got to hear from two experts in the field in Kenya.
First of all, Margaret Oyugi shared with us her experiences. Margaret is a Program Associate of COVAW, the Coalition on Violence Against Women. Margaret is working for COVAW in Narok County in Kenya. The county has a population of about 1.15 million people and cutting is deeply entrenched in the culture of the major ethnic communities, the Maasai and Kalenjin. This is illustrated by the high rate of girls who have been cut in Narok (78%) versus nationwide (21%). Margaret shared with us that since cutting is happening in secrecy, the current stay-at-home order indeed provides an environment that is fertile ground for the practice of FGM/C. Furthermore, Margaret explained how this is also fueled by the fact that the focus of accountability mechanisms has diverted to the pandemic and that, due to social distancing, this cannot be supplemented by community accountability. Margaret also confirmed how social distancing forms a major challenge to the work of COVAW, since most of their activities involve interactions with communities through dialogue. Fortunately, Margaret was also able to share some good news with us and told us how she and her co-workers were adapting. Via virtual meetings and regular updates, communication with and between staff, partners, stakeholders and the Kenyan government is ongoing, and a strategy to mitigate FGM/C is in the making. Margaret also told us about radio shows on FGM/C that have been broadcasted to keep the dialogue within the community going. The radio shows have already reached over 245.000 people and feature such topics as ‘How the community can prevent FGC during Covid-19’ and ‘The mythology sustaining FGC in the Maasai and Kalenjin communities’.
Agnes Pareyio shared with us her interesting experiences as well, as she is the chair of the Anti FGM Board in Kenya, but also the project coordinator of Tasaru Safe House for Girls. She explained that incidences of child marriage and FGM/C have increased since the curfew and the shutdown of schools in Kenya: “This is because the girls are at home with the parents, for long hours, and this gives an opportunity for them to marry off their daughters, and those who want to cut them can do it silently at night.” She explains that many organisations in Kenya are currently using the radio to reach out to communities with anti-FGM messages. Unfortunately, Agnes’ internet connection was unstable, but her presentation is available here.
After both presentations, we had a lively Q&A session. It is always inspiring to hear those discussions and to hear how civil society organisations are rising up to the circumstances at hand and how hard they are working to do this. However – as we know – FGM/C does not only occur on the African continent, but it is also practiced by certain communities in Asian countries. For that reason, I decided that we will focus our third webinar on FGM/C in Asia during Covid-19.
The third webinar was organized the 26th of May 2020 and focused on the situation in Asia. The webinar featured members of the Asia Network to End FGM/C, a joint collaboration between ARROW and Orchid Project in partnership with activists, organisations and researchers working on FGM/C in Asia. The two panelists we invited for this webinar were Ms Retty Ratnawati representing the Indonesian National Commission on Violence Against Women, and Aarefa Johari of Sahiyo.
I started my presentation with an overview of the input I received from all participants of webinar #1 and #2 on the four questions: risks, challenges, opportunities and solutions. I developed an 8-pager that I shared with all participants, including all preliminary research results and a list of resources on Covid-19 and FGM/C.
(Temporary) decrease of FGM/C
In the second part of my presentation, I shared some evidence (local newspaper articles, stories of journalists) that FGM/C is on the rise at the African continent, but that there seems to be a (temporary) decrease in FGM/C cases in Asia. I shared with our participants what a respondent had observed in India, with whom I conducted an in-depth interview via Zoom. She said that in urban areas, Mumbai in particular, the practice has stopped, as it is medicalized. The practices and clinics performing FGM/C have all been closed, only governmental hospitals focussing on Covid-19 are open. In addition to that, children under the age of 10 are prohibited from leaving the house, so are adults above the age of sixty. Since girls are usually cut at the age of 7 and cutters often are elderly women, it is very difficult for parents to get their daughters undergo FGM/C. However, it has also been observed that in rural areas in India the practice continues in secret by local midwives, since rural areas are not as affected by Covid-19 as urban areas and measures are not enforced as harshly as in cities.
Even if it is great news that FGM/C is currently ‘on hold’ in India, respondents also shared several challenges the pandemic is presenting for their efforts to end FGM/C in India. FGM/C is not criminalized in India, and efforts to draft a bill have unfortunately come to a standstill. Also, an important FGM/C case pending before the Supreme Court has been put on hold. On top of that, NGOs are severely restricted in their work by the social distancing measures. It is impossible to go to the field and organize community-based activities due to travel bans. This means communities and victims are very hard to reach. Campaigners are also of the opinion that meeting victims digitally via e.g. Zoom is very difficult, because communities are not familiar with modern technology. In addition, campaigners also feel that FGM/C is too sensitive subject for a virtual conversation.
But before the two panelists were given the floor, Ebony Ridell Bamber of Orchid Project gave more background information about the Asia Network to end FGM/C. She also shared with us some challenges in the Asian context, for example a lack of prevalence data from governments and a lack of criminalization of FGM/C, despite international commitments that have been made. Another challenge Ebony underlined is the fact that in many Asian countries FGM/C is seen as a religious duty within practicing communities. Although there is anecdotal evidence from Indonesia that large ritual-style ceremonies have been postponed, Ebony highlighted that this is unlikely to mark a permanent trend. She also shared important insights from Malaysia, where most health services not focussed on Covid-19 have become unavailable through the closure of clinics, which heavily impacts FGM/C survivors who are often reliant on health services. Ebony also confirmed that Orchid Project shares the fear that FGM/C will go ‘underground’ and expressed that it was likely that the practice “ will become further shrouded in secrecy.”
Afterwards, Ms Retty Ratnawati of Indonesia’s National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan) took the floor. FGM/C is an important subject for Komnas Perempuan. Ms Retty told us that a 2013 Survey found that 51.2% of girls between 0 and 11 have been subjected to FGM/C in Indonesida. Then, Ms Retty explained that Komnas Perempuan conducted a study in 2018 with the objective to deepen their understanding of FGM/C in 10 Indonesian Provinces with high prevalence rates, as the 2013 survey did only collect data on the FGM/C prevalence. The survey did not include information on the types of FGM/C being practiced or its drivers. The 2018 study captured different perspectives, including 1. parents of girls that underwent FGM/C, 2. midwives, and 3. Traditional Service Providers who practice FGM/C. Ms Retty also elaborated on the history of FGM/C policies in Indonesia. There is currently no law prohibiting FGM/C in Indonesia. A Circular Letter has been adopted in 2006 that call for a prohibition of FGM/C being performed by Health Service Providers, but in 2008 a Fatwa was adopted to not prohibit FGM/C. In 2010, the Ministry of Health issued a Ministerial Regulation that says that FGM/C must be conducted in a safe and hygienic manner. In 2014 a Decree was adopted, but this is still ambiguous as it provides that guidelines need to be published on FGM/C to ensure the safety and health of girls and prevent FGM/C. Ms Retty concluded with telling us how Covid-19 is impacting FGM/C: she saw that attention was diverted from the subject of FGM/C and all efforts are currently focussed on handling Covid-19 and its impact on health and economy. She shared that it was not possible to travel anymore to do fieldwork or monitor projects. However, as large ritualistic events, where girls are also often cut, cannot take place, Ms Retty observed it will be likely that FGM/C in Indonesia would, temporarily, decrease.
Finally, it was Aarefa Johari’s turn to tell us about her involvement in something rather special; a smartphone app especially designed to combat FGM/C! Aarefa first shared her fear that the halt in FGM/C in India is only temporarily. Girls can be cut after the age of 7 as well, so the practice is likely to continue after the lockdown is lifted. Aarefa also confirmed that fieldwork and other outreach events, such as bonding over cultural cuisine, had to be cancelled. AfterAarefa told us more about the development of a new app called ‘Mumkin’ that might help campaigners in the fight against FGM/C at times of social distancing and isolation. Mumkin means ‘possible’ in Indian and Hindi and its aim is to make difficult conversations about FGM/C possible between friends and families. The idea behind the app is that in order to change a social norm, conversations have to happen within the home, not via a polarized public debate. Mumkin has been launched recently as a beta version, and Aarefa and her colleagues have started to get the first responses. Through Mumkin, a user can have mock conversation about FGM/C with a certain character built into the app, to practice and prepare them for real life conversations. Another feature is that you can listen to survivor stories, which can be used in the real life conversation so that e.g. a mother and daughter can listen together. Mumkin also includes tips on for example terminology. Aarefa explained to us that to someone who is in favour of the practice might want to use the word ‘cutting’ instead of ‘mutilation’ as it sounds more neutral, and helps the conversation go on in a constructive way.
Afterwards a lively Q&A session followed, where participants were given the opportunity to ask all different types of questions to the panelists.
The third webinar was organized the 18th of June 2020 and focused on the role of the youth in ending FGM/C in times of Covid-19. We organized this webinar in collaboration with Sanne Thijssen and Adrija Das from Stories to Action. Stories to Action is a global online platform to amplify youth voices and catalyze action ensuring that their sexual & reproductive health & rights are guaranteed.
We invited two young activists to give a presentation during this webinar: Natalie Robi Tingo and Dr. Mariam Dahir, two young activists passionate about ending FGM/C and guaranteeing Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights to young women and girls. Natalie is the Founder and Executive Director of Msichana Empowerment Kuria, a Kenyan grassroots organization led by young women that fights for the fundamental rights of girls and young women. Mariam is a medical doctor who often treats women and girls for the complications of FGM/C and Chair of Youth Anti-FGM Somaliland, a national movement to end FGM/C by reaching and influencing youths to end FGM/C in the next generation.
Preliminary research findings
I started the webinar by sharing our preliminary findings: namely an increase in FGM/C on the African continent and a (temporary) decrease in FGM/C in Asia, specifically in India. Sanne and Adrija prepared two ‘mentimeters’ for our viewers to poll their opinions and ideas on certain issues around FGM/C. When asked which 3 words came to mind when they thought of FGM/C, youth and Covid-19 sadly words like ‘vulnerable’, ‘frightening’, ‘isolation’, ‘suffering’ and ‘powerless’ came up, but also ‘activists’ and ‘hope’, see below.
Presentations of two youth activists: Natalie & Mariam
Natalie underlined that due to the economic hardships caused by the Covid-19 lockdown more and more girls are getting married. As many will know, FGM/C is a precondition for marriage in many communities, especially in East Africa. Natalie also confirmed that her work as an activist has been seriously disrupted; as we have seen before, it is currently not possible to campaign through community activities. Most disturbingly Natalie has heard stories of people blaming uncut girls for spreading the Covid-19 virus because they are considered to be ‘unclean’. Fortunately, Natalie also saw some opportunities, one of which was to innovate campaign strategies, for example the use of social media to spread awareness of girls at risk, community radio programmes and telephone hotlines for girls at risk.
Mariam told us about the difficult environment she is operating in. Somaliland has high rates of infant mortality, maternal deaths and illiteracy. On top of that, an estimated 99.1% of women and girls in Somaliland have undergone FGM/C. She explained to us how a combination of religious conviction and culture result in this high prevalence of FGM/C, even if though a 2006 survey showed that about a third of women in Somaliland and Somalia did not support the continuation of the practice. Mariam also elaborated upon the work of Youth Anti-FGM Somaliland, like campaigns through social media and on schools and Universities, and advocating for the passing of a bill against FGM/C i.a. through petitions. Something also Mariam has seen in her work is the incredible power of a social norm in Somaliland. She said: “If you ask a mother why are you cutting your girls, she answers; ‘Who will marry her? Who will marry my daughter?’”
During the Q&A session, Natalie and Mariam shared with the audience many interesting insights about their work and the impact of Covid-19 in their respective countries. After the Q&A session, I shortly draw attention to the Impacts of Covid-10 on FGM/C Survey of the Global Platform for Action to End FGM/C. With this survey, we try to gather more stories from the field about the impact of Covid-19 on efforts to end FGM/C.
If you would like to view the entire webinar and learn more about youth and FGM/C you can use the following link to watch the full recording:
The 14th of July 2020, we organized a webinar entitled ‘Impact of Covid-19 on ending FGM/C in West Africa‘. It was the third webinar of a webinar series about the impact of Covid-19 on our efforts to end Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C).
Current situation in West Africa
The first webinar focused on the situation in Tanzania, the second webinar on the situation in Kenya, the third webinar on the situation in Asia, the fourth webinar on the role of the youth and we decided that the focus of the fifth webinar would be on the situation in West Africa. We organized this webinar in collaboration with AmplifyChange. Amplify Change is a multi-donor challenge fund that invests in Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) advocacy by civil society, aiming to empower young people, men and women to realize those rights. The fund is managed by a consortium of Global Fund for Women, Mannion Daniels and the African Women’s Development Fund. One of Amplify Change’s top priorities is addressing Gender-Based Violence (GBV), including ending FGM/C.
In this webinar, a wonderful group of activists and professionals joined as panelists, namely; Alethea Osborne, Strategic Advisor at Amplify Change from the UK, Chioma Ike, Executive Director of Circuit Pointe from Nigeria, Sarian Karim, Founder of Keep The Drum Lose The Knife from Sierra Leone, and Oumie Sissokho, Partnerships Manager at The Girls Agenda from The Gambia.
In noticed in the list of participants that we had many new people joining this webinar, so after outlining the order of presentations and a short introduction of all panelists, I started with a little catch-up and overview of the past four webinars. Something very heartwarming that I wanted to share was that so many people have participated in the webinars up to now. We have 350 unique participants from all over the world attending live via Zoom and over 500 views on YouTube. Over the past weeks, I have received many e-mails from activists that told me our webinars gave them a feeling of ‘togetherness’ during these times of social distancing. We are very grateful that we can play this role. I also presented my submission to the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women and the main ‘lessons learned’ over the past four webinars.
Afterwards, I shared with the audience that I was very excited about this webinar myself as well, because I also had some questions regarding the impact of COVID-19 on FGM/C in the West-African context, such as;
After my introduction, it was Alethea’s turn to tell our audience more about the work of amplify change on FGM/C. However, due to some technical difficulties, Chioma took the stage before Alethea did, to share her experiences with us.
Experiences from Nigeria
Chioma is the Executive Director of Circuit Pointe, a non-profit, youth-led organization established in 2015 by a young female Nigerian after hearing untold stories of oppressed women, abused teens and victims of traditional practices. Chioma first shared the challenges Circuit pointe is experiencing, starting with the sad news that due to the lockdown in Nigeria, there is a massive increase in FGM/C (Type 4). Social distancing led to FGM/C being performed within households away from public scrutiny, which is amplified by the ban on inter-state travel preventing Circuit Pointe’s team from visiting practicing communities. On top of this, the Nigerian Government has proposed a 43% cut to primary health care services, at a time when women and girls need these services the most and despite rising numbers of Covid-19 cases.
Chioma explained to us how this cut is also likely to reduce care for pregnant women and new mothers, this will likely make them turn to at-home-deliveries by midwifes who offer delivery and infantile FGM/C as a ‘package’. On an organizational level, over head costs have doubles because a digital workspace and infrastructure had to be created to be able to respond to FGM/C during Covid-19. And like many other activists, Chioma saw how many of Circuit Pointe’s planned activities had to be postponed. However, Circuit Pointe is anything but beaten, Chioma also shared with us how they pro-actively reacted to the crisis and which opportunities they have seen. For example, in response to Covid-19, Circuit Pointe has included Covid-19 awareness in their SMS-campaigns, explaining to communities how to make facial masks from materials available in their home. Circuit Pointe has even already named their strategy regarding new opportunities, The Three Cs of Covid-19; Communication, Collaboration and Connection. Under Communication, Circuit Pointe has set up a free hotline where cases of FGM/C and GBV can be reported and responded to. Under Collaboration, Circuit Pointe has done something rather marvellous; engaging traditional midwifes as change actors, dissuading new or soon-to-be mothers from accepting and other midwifes from offering at-home-delivery and infantile FGM/C as a package! Chioma concluded by underlining how Covid-19 is likely to widen the inequality gap between men and women, and the vital importance of advocating to include gender in the worldwide response to Covid-19.
Presentation of AmplifyChange
After Chioma’s powerful and inspiring presentation, Alethea Osborne, with a fully restored internet connection, was able to tell us more about the important work of AmplifyChange in supporting projects to end FGM/C and how they have tried to adapt to support the grantees. Alethea shared with us that over the years AmplifyChange has made 95 grants, in 18 countries, worth 7 million euros to activism against FGM/C. Most of these were small grants to small NGOs and grassroots activists. To respond to Covid-19, AmplifyChange has prioritized to stay localized and flexible and most of all to really listen to grantees and to what they need. For example, by reassuring them that projects can be extended without cost-implications and by helping them with organisational strengthening, such as digital capacity building. In response to Chioma, Alethea also told us that AmplifyChange realises that Covid-19 will impact gender inequality negatively and that FGM/C should remain in the centre of this discussion: “It is now more important than ever that advocates and grassroots organisations keep on working and make their voices being heard,” she said.
Experiences from Sierra Leone
Then it was Sarian’s turn to take the floor. Sarian is the Founder and Director of Keep the Drums Lose the Knife (KDLK), an initiative to celebrate Sierra Leone’s cultural heritage, namely the Bondo Society, while aiming to abandon the tradition of cutting. Sarian first told us how KDLK was initially impacted by Covid-19: due to school closures, community outreach and school campaign came to an immediate halt, and because 90% of the communities with which KDLK works is illiterate it is very difficult to continue outreach via media platforms. Sarian then told us how this consequently also put them under great pressure to very quickly put together a Covid-19 team, next to the End FGM/C outreach, to inform the communities and to provide basic essentials to help prevent the spread of Covid-19. Some communities weren’t even aware of the pandemic, KDLK had to update them in a language they understood, using Ebola as an example to help them comprehend the situation. Something very positive that Sarian shared with us, was that in the mean time community outreach has been continued, albeit with smaller groups than usual, adhering to social distancing rules. And when that was not possible, KDLK did one-on-one sessions. Sarian also shared the current situation of the FGM/C practice in Sierra Leone with us. What is remarkable is that just like during Ebola, FGM/C has decreased because the Government has temporarily banned all traditional practices to mitigate the spread of the disease. However, GBV, including sexual violence has increased: Sarian told us about horrifying cases of girls as young as five being raped at home, partly due to school closures. Even though the ban is temporarily, Sarian hopes that this time the Government will see the other well-known risks of FGM/C and make the ban total and permanent. Sarian is now more than ever committed to advocating; as movement within the country is being relaxed, the first thing cutters will do is to begin arranging cutting. Sarian concluded her presentation by underlining the need to share experience and knowledge, there is a great opportunity for networking between regions within Sierra Leone and between States in West-Africa.
Last but certainly not least, we got to hear from Oumie, Partnerships Manager at The Girls’ Agenda, from the Gambia. The Girls’ Agenda is an organisation founded by young dynamic women who hailed from communities where early marriage is common. They advocate against child marriage and for the respect of the human rights of girls and women and enable them to live in freedom and dignity. Oumie told us that in The Gambia a state of emergency has been enforced since March, and that as of July there have been 64 confirmed cases of Covid-19. The Government has created a multi-sectoral Covid-19 response team, but not a specific GBV response plan for GBV. Even though in June the Government did launch the first ever GBV-hotline, the public has perceived this as meant for intimate partner violence, it is now up to the advocates to clarify that it is also meant for FGM/C and sexual violence. Covid-19 also presents some serious challenges to The Girls’ Agenda itself. Oumie told us that due to the lockdown both the office and the Youth Safe Place, an SRHR/GBV learning centre, had to be closed. And as many other activists sadly had to tell us, awareness raising through community outreach had to be cancelled. Oumie underlined the difficulties of digital outreaching because of the target audiences having inadequate computers and poor or no internet connections. However, The Girls Agenda has still taken the opportunity to built their capacity and expand their virtual presence, for example on social media and through organizing webinars. Oumie also told us how they are trying to integrate gender, GBV and SRHR into the media focus on Covid-19, and vice versa. Sadly, Oumie shared with us that also in The Gambia there has been an increase in FGM/C. The reason for this is twofold, like in Eastern Africa, people are using the lockdown to carry out FGM/C in secrecy and go undetected due to the weak disaster response which focusses solely on Covid-19 and neglects GBV including FGM/C. Although there is a law in the Gambia that criminalizes FGM/C, getting community witnesses to support activists and legal action is a serious challenge. Oumie concluded by recommending that the Government create a comprehensive FGM/C preventing plan to respond to this uncertain new world.
After all the amazing and interesting presentations from our panelists, it was time for the Q&A! We were asked many insightful questions, and heard some very interesting stories! One of the questions highlighted a very important issue that sometimes is forgotten: “How do we ensure the safety of activists?” It is indeed the case that activists must stay healthy to do their work. Oumie told us that in a young organisation full of passion to keep on going, they quickly had to create and implement internal health policies to prevent the spread of Covid-19 among the co-workers, like limited office-hours, trying to restrict the number of people present as much as possible and working from home.
If you want to hear all the other fascinating discussions and see the presentations, you can use this link to view the entire webinar!
In this document, you’ll find the preliminary findings of our research up to now, including a list of resources. Please note that this is a living document to facilitate discussion and exchange knowledge. It will be updated after each webinar.