Current situation in West Africa
The first webinar focused on the situation in Tanzania, the second webinar on the situation in Kenya, the third webinar on the situation in Asia, the fourth webinar on the role of the youth and we decided that the focus of the fifth webinar would be on the situation in West Africa. We organized this webinar in collaboration with AmplifyChange. Amplify Change is a multi-donor challenge fund that invests in Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) advocacy by civil society, aiming to empower young people, men and women to realize those rights. The fund is managed by a consortium of Global Fund for Women, Mannion Daniels and the African Women’s Development Fund. One of Amplify Change’s top priorities is addressing Gender-Based Violence (GBV), including ending FGM/C.
In this webinar, a wonderful group of activists and professionals joined as panelists, namely; Alethea Osborne, Strategic Advisor at Amplify Change from the UK, Chioma Ike, Executive Director of Circuit Pointe from Nigeria, Sarian Karim, Founder of Keep The Drum Lose The Knife from Sierra Leone, and Oumie Sissokho, Partnerships Manager at The Girls Agenda from The Gambia.
In noticed in the list of participants that we had many new people joining this webinar, so after outlining the order of presentations and a short introduction of all panelists, I started with a little catch-up and overview of the past four webinars. Something very heartwarming that I wanted to share was that so many people have participated in the webinars up to now. We have 350 unique participants from all over the world attending live via Zoom and over 500 views on YouTube. Over the past weeks, I have received many e-mails from activists that told me our webinars gave them a feeling of 'togetherness' during these times of social distancing. We are very grateful that we can play this role. I also presented my submission to the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women and the main 'lessons learned' over the past four webinars.
Afterwards, I shared with the audience that I was very excited about this webinar myself as well, because I also had some questions regarding the impact of COVID-19 on FGM/C in the West-African context, such as;
- Is there also an increased risk of FGM/C like in East-African countries?
- Is there a link between child-marriage and FGM/C like we see in East-Africa, since the average age at cutting in West-Africa is much lower?
- What are the similarities and differences between the impacts of COVID-19 and Ebola? Is the governmental ban on FGM/C due to COVID-19 in Sierra Leone as strictly adhered to like the ban on FGM/C during Ebola?
After my introduction, it was Alethea’s turn to tell our audience more about the work of amplify change on FGM/C. However, due to some technical difficulties, Chioma took the stage before Alethea did, to share her experiences with us.
Experiences from Nigeria
Chioma is the Executive Director of Circuit Pointe, a non-profit, youth-led organization established in 2015 by a young female Nigerian after hearing untold stories of oppressed women, abused teens and victims of traditional practices. Chioma first shared the challenges Circuit pointe is experiencing, starting with the sad news that due to the lockdown in Nigeria, there is a massive increase in FGM/C (Type 4). Social distancing led to FGM/C being performed within households away from public scrutiny, which is amplified by the ban on inter-state travel preventing Circuit Pointe’s team from visiting practicing communities. On top of this, the Nigerian Government has proposed a 43% cut to primary health care services, at a time when women and girls need these services the most and despite rising numbers of Covid-19 cases.
Chioma explained to us how this cut is also likely to reduce care for pregnant women and new mothers, this will likely make them turn to at-home-deliveries by midwifes who offer delivery and infantile FGM/C as a ‘package’. On an organizational level, over head costs have doubles because a digital workspace and infrastructure had to be created to be able to respond to FGM/C during Covid-19. And like many other activists, Chioma saw how many of Circuit Pointe’s planned activities had to be postponed. However, Circuit Pointe is anything but beaten, Chioma also shared with us how they pro-actively reacted to the crisis and which opportunities they have seen. For example, in response to Covid-19, Circuit Pointe has included Covid-19 awareness in their SMS-campaigns, explaining to communities how to make facial masks from materials available in their home. Circuit Pointe has even already named their strategy regarding new opportunities, The Three Cs of Covid-19; Communication, Collaboration and Connection. Under Communication, Circuit Pointe has set up a free hotline where cases of FGM/C and GBV can be reported and responded to. Under Collaboration, Circuit Pointe has done something rather marvellous; engaging traditional midwifes as change actors, dissuading new or soon-to-be mothers from accepting and other midwifes from offering at-home-delivery and infantile FGM/C as a package! Chioma concluded by underlining how Covid-19 is likely to widen the inequality gap between men and women, and the vital importance of advocating to include gender in the worldwide response to Covid-19.
Presentation of AmplifyChange
After Chioma’s powerful and inspiring presentation, Alethea Osborne, with a fully restored internet connection, was able to tell us more about the important work of AmplifyChange in supporting projects to end FGM/C and how they have tried to adapt to support the grantees. Alethea shared with us that over the years AmplifyChange has made 95 grants, in 18 countries, worth 7 million euros to activism against FGM/C. Most of these were small grants to small NGOs and grassroots activists. To respond to Covid-19, AmplifyChange has prioritized to stay localized and flexible and most of all to really listen to grantees and to what they need. For example, by reassuring them that projects can be extended without cost-implications and by helping them with organisational strengthening, such as digital capacity building. In response to Chioma, Alethea also told us that AmplifyChange realises that Covid-19 will impact gender inequality negatively and that FGM/C should remain in the centre of this discussion: "It is now more important than ever that advocates and grassroots organisations keep on working and make their voices being heard," she said.
Experiences from Sierra Leone
Then it was Sarian’s turn to take the floor. Sarian is the Founder and Director of Keep the Drums Lose the Knife (KDLK), an initiative to celebrate Sierra Leone’s cultural heritage, namely the Bondo Society, while aiming to abandon the tradition of cutting. Sarian first told us how KDLK was initially impacted by Covid-19: due to school closures, community outreach and school campaign came to an immediate halt, and because 90% of the communities with which KDLK works is illiterate it is very difficult to continue outreach via media platforms. Sarian then told us how this consequently also put them under great pressure to very quickly put together a Covid-19 team, next to the End FGM/C outreach, to inform the communities and to provide basic essentials to help prevent the spread of Covid-19. Some communities weren’t even aware of the pandemic, KDLK had to update them in a language they understood, using Ebola as an example to help them comprehend the situation. Something very positive that Sarian shared with us, was that in the mean time community outreach has been continued, albeit with smaller groups than usual, adhering to social distancing rules. And when that was not possible, KDLK did one-on-one sessions. Sarian also shared the current situation of the FGM/C practice in Sierra Leone with us. What is remarkable is that just like during Ebola, FGM/C has decreased because the Government has temporarily banned all traditional practices to mitigate the spread of the disease. However, GBV, including sexual violence has increased: Sarian told us about horrifying cases of girls as young as five being raped at home, partly due to school closures. Even though the ban is temporarily, Sarian hopes that this time the Government will see the other well-known risks of FGM/C and make the ban total and permanent. Sarian is now more than ever committed to advocating; as movement within the country is being relaxed, the first thing cutters will do is to begin arranging cutting. Sarian concluded her presentation by underlining the need to share experience and knowledge, there is a great opportunity for networking between regions within Sierra Leone and between States in West-Africa.
Last but certainly not least, we got to hear from Oumie, Partnerships Manager at The Girls’ Agenda, from the Gambia. The Girls’ Agenda is an organisation founded by young dynamic women who hailed from communities where early marriage is common. They advocate against child marriage and for the respect of the human rights of girls and women and enable them to live in freedom and dignity. Oumie told us that in The Gambia a state of emergency has been enforced since March, and that as of July there have been 64 confirmed cases of Covid-19. The Government has created a multi-sectoral Covid-19 response team, but not a specific GBV response plan for GBV. Even though in June the Government did launch the first ever GBV-hotline, the public has perceived this as meant for intimate partner violence, it is now up to the advocates to clarify that it is also meant for FGM/C and sexual violence. Covid-19 also presents some serious challenges to The Girls’ Agenda itself. Oumie told us that due to the lockdown both the office and the Youth Safe Place, an SRHR/GBV learning centre, had to be closed. And as many other activists sadly had to tell us, awareness raising through community outreach had to be cancelled. Oumie underlined the difficulties of digital outreaching because of the target audiences having inadequate computers and poor or no internet connections. However, The Girls Agenda has still taken the opportunity to built their capacity and expand their virtual presence, for example on social media and through organizing webinars. Oumie also told us how they are trying to integrate gender, GBV and SRHR into the media focus on Covid-19, and vice versa. Sadly, Oumie shared with us that also in The Gambia there has been an increase in FGM/C. The reason for this is twofold, like in Eastern Africa, people are using the lockdown to carry out FGM/C in secrecy and go undetected due to the weak disaster response which focusses solely on Covid-19 and neglects GBV including FGM/C. Although there is a law in the Gambia that criminalizes FGM/C, getting community witnesses to support activists and legal action is a serious challenge. Oumie concluded by recommending that the Government create a comprehensive FGM/C preventing plan to respond to this uncertain new world.
After all the amazing and interesting presentations from our panelists, it was time for the Q&A! We were asked many insightful questions, and heard some very interesting stories! One of the questions highlighted a very important issue that sometimes is forgotten: "How do we ensure the safety of activists?" It is indeed the case that activists must stay healthy to do their work. Oumie told us that in a young organisation full of passion to keep on going, they quickly had to create and implement internal health policies to prevent the spread of Covid-19 among the co-workers, like limited office-hours, trying to restrict the number of people present as much as possible and working from home.If you want to hear all the other fascinating discussions and see the presentations, you can use this link to view the entire webinar![embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ZggppmD7VU&t=5s[/embed]