Health Aid for All Initiative
The event started off with an interesting presentation of Dr. Ugochi Ohajuruka, who is a medical doctor and public health practitioner. She first introduced the topic Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) to the audience. She explained the prevalence, different types of FGM/C, the health complications (immediate and long-term), the reasons why FGM/C is practiced. Then she moved to the work of HAFAI, which stands for Health Aid for All Initiative. HAFAI is a Nigerian non-governmental, non-profit and non-religious organization that is primarily focused on human rights and girl child education. Their activities take place in the field of reproductive health care, sexual health and menstrual hygiene management solutions. HAFAI is also committed to ending FGM/C. Dr. Ugochi Ohajurka explained that they use hygiene and menstruation as a starting-point to start talking about FGM/C in communities: "Sanitary pads offer a window of opportunity to talk about FGM." She emphasised that it is important to not only talk to women and girls, but also involve boys and men in the conversation about sexual reproductive health and rights: "They need to be well-equipped with information in order to fight taboo and stigma." She belies in intergenerational knowledge transfer: "When girls grow up, they will be future mothers."
Dr. Ugochi Ohajuruka also spoke about the impact of Covid-19. Due to curfews and restriction of movement, they were not able to travel to communities. Instead, they used radio programmes to still reach girls. It helped to widen their knowledge and keep them informed about what was happening in the world. She finished with explaining how FGM/C is a cross-cutting issue that requires a multisectorial approach and collaboration: "It is not a girls' issue, it is a human rights issue that cuts across multiple Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including goal 1 (no poverty), 3 (good health and well-being), 4 (quality education), 5 (gender equality) and 13 (climate action)."
Implications of Covid-19
I was the second speaker and I gave a presentation about the impact of Covid-19 on ending FGM/C. I started with expectations of the impact when the pandemic just hit, for example of Dr. Natalia Kanem, Executive Director of UNFPA, who said: "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." Similarly, the World Economic Forum and NGOs expected an increase in FGM/C, an increase in child-marriage and an increase in all forms of Violence Against Women. In a Technical Note of UNICEF on Covid-19 and Harmful Practices that was published in April 2020, reference is made to the Ebola Crisis: "We know from the Ebola outbreaks and from other public health crises that adolescent girls are disproportionally affected by these emergencies.” I explained the audience that this sparked my interest and was a reason for me to do more research on this topic. I presented the implications of Ebola and how it lead to a 'drastic decline' of FGM/C in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Leaders called for an end of the practice to prevent the spread of the virus. Unfortunately, this was only temporarily as FGM/C resumed when the epidemic was over. Paramount Chiefs said to the community to "go to the bush to uphold our culture and tradition."
Achieving the SDGs
I continued my presentation with some data on how the Covid-19 pandemic undermines progress made towards achieving the SDGs. UNFPA estimates for example that 2 million FGM/C cases could occur over the next decade that would otherwise have been averted and UNICEF estimates that up to 10 million more girls will be at risk of becoming child brides as a result of the pandemic. Main causes are the school closures, household poverty and disruption of NGO programmes.
I finished my presentation with showing how all these issues (FGM/C, child marriage, other forms of VAW, teenage pregnancy, access to SRH services, unsafe abortions) are interconnected and interrelated. Sadly, Covid-19 has aggravated pre-existing challenges associated with SRHR and it is important in our efforts to end these practices that we realise that the pandemic might be over, but the impact will be felt by girls and women for at least the next decade.
Education of the girl child
The third speaker was Chika Offor, who is the CEO of the Vaccine Network for Disease Control. Her presentation was entitled 'Implications of Covid-19 on Girl Child Education in West Africa'. She started her presentation with a short introduction to the Vaccine Network and explained that this organisation is based in Nigeria, women-led and women-focused. The vision of the Network is sustainable health and development for all, which they aim to achieve through implementing programs and conducting research.
When providing the context of girl-child education, Chika Offor highlighted that the world is home to approximately 1.2 million girls who are either directly targeted or a caught in the middle of inequalities that prevent them from reaching their full potential. She explained that especially girl in rural areas suffer from violations of the right to education. She continued with the different types of challenges surrounding girl-child education, for example gender inequality (girls are viewed less valuable than boys), access to education (poor toilet facilities affect girls during menstruation), quality of education (teachers have lower expectations of girls), gender-based violence (many girls are sexually assaulted on their way to school each year) and poverty (there is a connection between endemic poverty and an increase in poor education outcomes).
Challenges for girls
However, all of these challenges tripled with Covid-19: "It felt like a vulcano that disrupted." The 'stay at home' or 'lockdown' policy resulted in school closures, closure of businesses and restrictions on individual movement in an attempt to limit the virus' spread. This also had a huge impact on the already existing challenges for the girl-child, Chika explained. First of all, more students favoured learning a skill over completing their education. In addition, as a result of school closures, girl's household work burdends increased, resulting girls spending more time helping out at home rather than studying. Another implication of Covid-19 was that governments decided to cut spending money on education, due to economic hardship. This was not only happening at the national level, but also at community level. As the previous speakers also highlighted: the pandemic increased income insecurity and some families viewed marrying off their daughters as a way to secure their future. Covid-19 also increased the risk of teenage pregnancy, as girls were spending more time at home (and potentially unsupervised).
Chika Offor highlighted at the end of her presentation that meaningful partnerships and collaboration is crucial. Programs should be integrated and government action should be multi-sectoral. In the end, it was interesting to see that our overarching take-home-message for the audience was the following: we need to get rid of the existing mentality that focuses still too much on a silo approach, because it is too rigid and simplistic. Instead, we should focus on meaningful collaboration, integration of programmes with different thematic focus areas and working across sectors.
I would like to thank the orgnanizers of the event of their very kind invitation and the participants for opening up during the Q&A session, for sharing personal experiences and interesting questions. My presentation can be downloaded here.