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 our work.
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 how Covid-19 is currently impacting their work in Tanzania.
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, even before Covid-19 happened there was 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 I 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.
I started my presentation with an overview of the input I received from all participants since the first webinar 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, that I will keep up to date.
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. 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 impossible to get a girl cut. However, it has also been observed that in rural areas in India the practice continues in secret, since measures are not enforced as harshly as in cities and the people seem to be less afraid of Covid-19.
Even if it is great news that FGM/C is currently ‘on hold’ in India, I was also told about several challenges the pandemic is presenting for the efforts to end FGM/C in India. FGM/C is not criminalized in India, and efforts to change that have 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 measures against Covid-19 as it is impossible to do field work due to travel bans. This means communities and victims are very hard to reach. Campaigners have also found that meeting victims via e.g. Zoom is very difficult, because communities are not familiar with modern technology and these campaigners feel that FGM/C is too sensitive a subject for a virtual conversation.
We were also joined in this webinar by two experts from the field: Ms Retty Ratnawati from Indonesia, representing the National Commission on Violence Against Women, and Aarefa Johari from India, who is involved in the development of the app ‘Mumkin’, which helps girls to initiate and continue the dialogue on FGM with their parents.
But before they were given the floor, Ebony Ridell Bamber 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 ” and continue.
Afterwards, Ms Retty Ratnawati of the National Commission on Violence Against Women in Indonesia shared with us their important research and experiences related to Covid-19 and Aarefa Johari of Sahiyo India shared with us how the lockdown in India is impacting the prevalence of FGM/C at the moment and how the development of a new app might help campaigners in the fight against FGM/C during times of social-distancing and isolation.
The third webinar was organized the 18th of June 2020 and focused on the role of the youth in ending FGM 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 fifth webinar will focus on the situation in West Africa. We organize this webinar in cooperation with AmplifyChange and we will hear from activists from Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Gambia, who will share with us how Covid-19 is currently impacting their work on the ground. You can find more information and register for the event here.
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.