At the onset of COVID-19, it became clear that the pandemic would significantly impact the efforts to end Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C). Previous epidemics such as Ebola demonstrated that girls and women tend to be severely affected in many ways during crises. Although we didn’t know exactly how it would play out during this specific pandemic, we wanted to think ahead and plan how to cope with its impending consequences. We decided to organize a webinar series that would allow us to connect with like-minded individuals.
The event's main objective was to use testimonies, data, and other relevant information to raise awareness and inform decision-makers and stakeholders (including NGOs, UN agencies, governments, donors, and researchers) about what was happening in the field in order to make the right strategic decisions and response plans. We also created a platform and gave a voice to activists, campaigners, NGOs, and government officials to share essential insights on how COVID-19 was impacting their efforts toward ending FGM/C. During the webinar series, we had guest speakers from Tanzania, Kenya, Somalia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Gambia, India, Indonesia, and Malaysia.
Increased Risk and Main Concerns
Throughout the time in which the webinars were held, we learned that our prediction about the impact this crisis would have on women’s lives was accurate. In various African countries, school closures, lockdowns, and social distancing requirements left girls unprotected and contributed to an increase in the incidence of the practice, including several “mass cuttings” performed on hundreds of girls in shorts periods. In many countries, institutions (including courts) were (semi-)closed, the police were overloaded or had other priorities (e.g., curfew implementation), and child protection officers were often not at work. In Kenya’s West Pokot county, more than 500 girls underwent FGM/C between mid-March and mid-June 2020.
Some of our speakers emphasized that helplines and SOS Hotlines were a crucial resource; others raised awareness about limited law enforcement and the fact that government institutions could not protect girls at risk of FGM/C. Many campaigners and doctors shared their concerns about the restricted access to health and SRHR information and services, especially for victims who need immediate assistance and care. One of the main takeaways was that the sentence “stay home, stay safe” doesn’t apply to girls and young women at risk of - or affected by - FGM/C in times of COVID-19.
Over 500 international participants with diverse backgrounds participated in the webinar series. The information gathered during the sessions was shared in a report that we submitted to the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women. We also received heartwarming emails from colleagues who shared that the series created a feeling of “togetherness.” A generalized conclusion of this meaningful action was that FGM/C prevention and control should be a more significant part of global crisis response plans in the future.