BACKGROUND AND PURPOSE
Progress has been made in the elimination of female genital mutilation, as girls aged 15 to 19 years are one third less likely to undergo the practice compared to 30 years ago.1 There is also growing opposition to the practice. In countries affected by female genital mutilation, 7 in 10 girls and women think the practice should end.2 As the global community faces the COVID-19 pandemic, an unprecendented health crisis with economic, social and political implications, such gains risk being rolled back. While evidence from the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa showed a decrease in female genital mutilation due to containment measures3, the opposite appears to be the case with COVID-19.
In Somalia, a UNFPA rapid assessment on gender-based violence (GBV) and female genital mutilation found that 31 percent of community members think there has been an increase in cases of female genital mutilation during the COVID-19 crisis.4 According to a survey conducted in Somalia by UNICEF, child protection and GBV service providers reported a 36 percent increase in GBV, and only 5 percent of child protection services were adapted to provide remote support for children confined to their homes.5 In Burkina Faso, UNICEF published a report on the impact of COVID-19 and found that 66 percent of children think the pandemic will lead to an increase in poverty among their families.6 The survey also suggested that school closures may result in a higher number of cases of female genital mutilation. In countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, and Sudan, girls are also reportedly at an increased risk of undergoing female genital mutilation as a precursor to marriage, suggesting a negative coping strategy associated with economic fallout, and school closures.7 Social isolation due to school closures can have profound social consequences on adolescent girls as they are cut off from their peer social networks and mentors.
According to estimates by UNFPA, the pandemic may result in two million cases of female genital mutilation that would otherwise have been averted or a one third reduction in progress towards Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target 5.3, the elimination of female genital mutilation by 2030.9 Analysis released by UNICEF shows the number of children living in poor households could increase by 15 percent by the end of 2020 as a result of COVID-19, with nearly two-thirds of these households in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.10 In addition to rising poverty, school closures during the pandemic have put adolescent girls most at risk of not returning to school when they reopen.11 A potential increase in gender gaps in education may affect future generations of girls and their risk of female genital mutilation. Research suggests less educated mothers are more likely to have their daughters undergo the practice.
The UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Programme on the Elimination of Female Genital Mutilation: Accelerating Change is the largest global programme addressing female genital mutilation in 16 countries by promoting the rights of girls and women to live free from violence and discrimination through enabling policies and legislation, access to a continuum of essential services, and community-led transformation of harmful social and gender norms. With limited research and documentation on the impact of humanitarian crises on female genital mutilation, the Joint Programme developed this brief to document lessons learned during the COVID-19 crisis. Drawing on rapid assessments and surveys, and consultations with country and regional offices, the brief presents Joint Programme strategies for adapting interventions to ensure business continuity in the face of the pandemic, and captures learning that will inform the programme’s future strategic planning. The brief is intended for Joint Programme staff and implementing partners, and other stakeholders working towards the elimination of female genital mutilation.