On the onset of the Covid-19 crisis, it became clear to me that the pandemic would have a large impact. 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, donors 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 Covid-19 pandemic - to share knowledge and information. In the end, what is important is to make sure that the right actions (based on evidence) are being taken in the upcoming weeks/months in terms of the prevention of FGM/C at a time where Covid-19 is shaping our lives.
I organized the first webinar together 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.
The Covid-19 pandemic
After a quick round of introduction, I started the webinar with a presentation where I aimed to answer four different questions on the impact of Covid-19 on ending FGM/C:
- Current evidence?
- What do experts say?
- Can we learn from ebola?
- Will Covid-19 help or hinder our efforts to end 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 webinar, one aspect immediately stood out: the comparison between Covid-19 and the Ebola-crisis. 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 rather different virus with different symptoms and transmission routes, the resemblance lies in the way to prevent the diseases from spreading, namely keeping distance from one another. During the Ebola-crisis, this was precisely the reason why FGM/C prevalence numbers decreased, 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 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 important to take into consideration and possibly anticipate on in the Covid-19 pandemic.
Current 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 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 and try to protect the girls as they can report cases to the police.
Importance of Child Helplines
After Rhobi’s presentation, Michael Marwa, Director of 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 get in contact with the helpline by dialing 116. The helpline provides children with advice and support or comes to visit them if necessary. The final presentation of the webinar was provided by Anna Holmström. 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, the UNFPA was alarmed to accelerate and innovate their efforts in response to the population growth of the past years and its possible negative impact on FGM/C rates. The challenges resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic 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.
Final updates and remarks
We were glad to see that Tony Mwebia of #MenEndFGM 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 is already using radio 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.
We recorded the webinar and it is available on Youtube by clicking on the link below:
- The recording of webinar #1 is available here.
- My presentation is available here.
- Rhobi’s presentation is available here.
The webinar was visited by people from all over the world. In total we had 130 registrations, and it was great to see that my inbox overflowed after the webinar. I received loads of positive responses and therefore we decided to make this a webinar series!I invited all participants of the webinar to share with me how Covid-19 was impacting their work by providing their answers to the following 4 questions:
- Which potential risks do you see?
For girls at risk for FGM/C
For girls who underwent FGM/C
- Which opportunities do you see?
- What are the challenges you are currently facing due to COVID-19?
- What are possible solutions for these challenges?
The next webinar will take place the 7th of May 2020 and will focus on the situation in Kenya. During this webinar, I will also share the initial results from the research. You can register here.