The 14th of January 2021, I was invited by the Amnesty International Student group Amsterdam (AISA) to give a lecture about Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) & the COVID-19 pandemic, together with my friend, activist and FGM-survivor, Istahil Abdulahi.
The event was organized by Zineb Badidi, who is a member of AISA and a former student of mine. She attended two of my courses at the University of Amsterdam last year and contacted me with the question if I'd be willing to give a lecture during an event to raise more awareness on FGM/C. It is always very nice if former students invite me for meetings like this and of course I said "yes" to her kind request.
This lecture was different from the ones in which attendants were already quite knowledgeable about FGM where the goal was to discuss policy, some people in this lecture had almost never heard of FGM. But that did not make this lecture any less enjoyable to give, or for that matter any less important! Lectures are a learning space and no one needs to be ashamed of not knowing what FGM is, spreading awareness about FGM is a very important subject for me. So this lecture I started with explaining to the audience what FGM is. I started with asking them to make several estimations, for example how many women and girls are living with FGM worldwide. 10, 100 and 190 million were called, so I explained to them how UNFPA estimates that at least 200 million women and girls are currently living with FGM. I also asked them where they think FGM happens, one person said “everywhere, also in Europe”, which is not wholly incorrect, but needed a little bit of nuancing. I explained that FGM mainly occurs in certain African and Asian countries, but that due to migration girls and women worldwide live with the consequences of FGM and that often girls are taken to the countries of their parents heritage during holidays to be cut. However, it is indeed true that there is a growing suspicion of FGM also being committed in Europe, for example there are strong rumours about a cutter being active in London. I then explained what FGM actually constitutes namely the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or any other injury inflicted on the female genitalia for non-medical reasons. I also asked the audience to estimate how many women and girls with FGM in the Netherlands, the current official estimation being 41,000, with 15,000 living with type III, and 4200 girls being at risk in the coming years.
Testimony of Istahil Abdulahi
After giving the audience this background knowledge Istahil took the floor to tell her impressive story. Istahil has lived in the Netherlands for 30 years, she is a mother of three, FSAN ‘key-person’ and enjoys playing basketball. But Istahil was born and raised in Somalia, when she was 6 she underwent FGM type III. Istahil did not understand what happened to her, FGM is not talked about in Somalia, there was no sign or signal to know about it. During a school holiday Istahil travelled to her grandmother’s 2000 kilometres away with her mother and sisters. One morning there she woke up, got a beautiful dress to put on, and unknowingly was taken to be cut. Istahil told us “I was screaming” upon which she was gagged with a bundle of clothes. The woman who came “took everything” after which Istahil’s vaginal opening was stitched together. Then her legs were bound together with ropes and a healing ritual was peformed. For the longest time Istahil thought this happened to every girl in the world, until she once saw an image of a uncut vagina. She was shocked and for the first time started to ask questions; “Why am I different ?” She remembered feeling sad. And after some more research also angry; FGM isn’t actually in the Koran, why was this done to her? Istahil still feels she cannot talk about it to her parents due to the situation in Somalia. Istahil told us that giving birth to her children helped her forget about her problems. This is of course an incredibly difficult story to tell, and even though I had heard it often, I was very impressed by Istahil and her unwavering strength in telling it.
Impact of COVID-19
After a short break, I continued to tell our audience about the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on efforts to end FGM/C. First of all, I compared the COVID-19 pandemic with the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. during the Ebola epidemic from 2014 to 2016, we saw a sudden and abrupt stop of FGM/C in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. Based on the genuine fear to further spread of the disease through the performance of FGM/C, the governments and local/religious leaders of those countries took active and effective steps to ban FGM/C. Unfortunately, this was only temporarily. After the epidemic, the practice was taken up again, and carried out as if nothing has happened. The girls who didn’t undergo FGM/C at the time of the epidemic, were all cut.
When COVID-19 hit, it became clear to me that it would have an enormous impact on the lives of girls and women worldwide. Indeed, a few weeks after countries were in lockdown, very sad stories of women who suffered from domestic violence came out. The UN has described the worldwide increase in domestic abuse as a “shadow pandemic.” At the same time, I wondered what the impact of COVID-19 would be on the prevalence of FGM/C. Would it result in a (temporary) halt on the practice, as was the case with Ebola? That would mean that COVID-19 might be an opportunity? Or is it the other way around? Since there was no research yet on the impact of COVID-19 on our efforts to end FGM/C, I decided to more research and organize a Webinar Series to share stories of activists from the field.
I shared with the audience what I had found out over the past months, namely: an increase in FGM/C in Africa (but consequently not in Sierra Leone) and a decrease in Asia, where many of the clinics in which FGM/C is usually performed are closed and/or because of lockdowns and social distancing restrictions. I showed newspaper articles that I received from campaigners in the field over the past months, as well as Tweets and messages indicating “mass cutting events” and and increase amount of girls undergoing the practice.UNFPA estimates that an additional 2 million girls will undergo FGM/C due to the pandemic that could otherwise be prevented…
The rise of FGM/C cases in the African context is specifically important, since most practicing communities in the Netherlands originate from African countries (Somalia, Egypte, Ethiopie, Eritrea and Sudan). The reason why there is an increase in those countries is a mix of different factors: isolation because of school closures and social distancing, limited law enforcement and poor economic circumstances moving parents to wed their daughters for which FGM/C is a precondition, have led to a large increase. This is worsened by the fact that many NGOs and activists cannot do their work, for example campaigning and organizing activities such as alternative rites of passage.
But I also told our audience about solutions the activists have come up with such as the strengthening of hotlines and sending out field workers to monitor the situations in villages and contact authorities when need be.
It was very happy with the outcome of the lecture, as spreading awareness and knowledge about FGM is very important. The participants were very interested and asked great questions such as “How can you address FGM/C without victimizing people who have already undergone the practice?" Of course the key here is respect: People and opinions can change, but pointing fingers will usually not help with that.
I would like to thank AISA, especially Zineb Badidi, for her invitation to give this lecture. I really enjoyed it!