The 7th of May 2020, we organized a webinar entitled 'Impact of Covid-19 on ending FGM/C in Kenya'. It was the second webinar of a webinar series about the impact of Covid-19 on our efforts to end Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C).
Current situation in Kenya
The first webinar focused on the situation in Tanzania and we decided that the focus of the second webinar would be on Kenya. Unfortunately, in the previous two weeks, more and 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 found on Twitter and shared during the webinar was that of Mariam, a 10 year old girl from Kenya, who said that she is living in an increased fear of FGM/C.
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. For example, 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.
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 Samwelly 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 from activists in the field, especially at those challenging times, and to hear how they are rising up to the circumstances at hand and how hard they are working on 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, we decided that we will focus our third webinar on FGM/C in Asia during Covid-19.