COVID-19 puts girls at higher risk for female genital mutilation, UNICEF warns

Disruptions due to the pandemic have resulted in a “33% reduction in the progress toward ending this harmful practice.”

 A displaced girl, who fled violence in Mosul, stands in line with her family to receive humanitarian aid from UNICEF, IOM, WFP and other organizations in Ibrahim Khalil village in Hamdaniyah, Iraq October 24, 2016.  (photo credit: UNICEF/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
A displaced girl, who fled violence in Mosul, stands in line with her family to receive humanitarian aid from UNICEF, IOM, WFP and other organizations in Ibrahim Khalil village in Hamdaniyah, Iraq October 24, 2016.
(photo credit: UNICEF/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

The COVID-19 pandemic puts millions of girls at increased risk of female genital mutilation (FGM), the United Nations children's agency UNICEF warned as the world marked International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation on February 6. With schools shuttered and public services disrupted, many of the institutions that have most protected girls from the practice are now absent from their lives. The result could be an additional 2 million cases of FGM over the next decade.

And FGM carries a heavy price for the girls who undergo it. It is, UNICEF says, a violation of their rights, and can lead to serious health complications and even death. In addition, “girls subjected to female genital mutilation are at increased risk of child marriage and dropping out of school, threatening their ability to build a better future for themselves, their families and their communities.”

“We are losing ground in the fight to end female genital mutilation, with dire consequences for millions of girls where the practice is most prevalent,” said Nankali Maksud, UNICEF senior adviser on the prevention of harmful practices. “When girls are not able to access vital services, schools and community networks, their risk of female genital mutilation significantly increases – threatening their health, education and future. As we mark International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation and approach two years of the pandemic, we must recommit to concerted and well-funded action to get back on track and end the practice everywhere.”

FGM, the ritual cutting or removal of some or all of the external female genitalia, is most frequently practiced in parts of Africa and Asia. Seven of the 25 countries where the practice is most prevalent are in the MENA region, including Somalia, where 99.2% of women and girls have undergone the practice; Djibouti (94.4%); Egypt (87.2%); Sudan (86.6%); Mauritania (66.6%); Yemen (18.5%); and Iraq (7.4%).

UNICEF reports that at least 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone FGM. Over time, prevalence of the practice has gradually eroded, but the effects of COVID threaten to slow or reverse that trend. The UN agency estimates that the added risk due to COVID-19 represents a “33% reduction in the progress toward ending this harmful practice.”

 A UNICEF worker helps an internally displaced girl put on a face mask at a makeshift camp, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Jalalabad, Afghanistan June 22, 2020. (credit: REUTERS/PARWIZ) A UNICEF worker helps an internally displaced girl put on a face mask at a makeshift camp, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Jalalabad, Afghanistan June 22, 2020. (credit: REUTERS/PARWIZ)

The indirect effects of COVID-19 – its contributions to poverty, inequality and conflict – are also cause for concern. “Of 31 countries with available data on female genital mutilation,” UNICEF reports, “15 countries are already grappling with conflict, rising poverty and inequality, creating a crisis within a crisis for the world’s most vulnerable and marginalized girls.”

One recent trend has made the pandemic even more dangerous in its contribution to FGM risk than it otherwise would have been: In about half of the countries where FGM is common, girls are undergoing the procedure at a younger age. UNESCO points to Kenya as an example: The average age of undergoing the procedure there has dropped from 12 to 9 over the past three decades. This means the window of opportunity for intervention, through educating the parents, for example, has been narrowed. 

Many questions remain about the possible reciprocal effects of COVID-19 and another FGM trend: an increasing medicalization of the procedure. UNICEF says that around 25% of girls and women who have undergone the practice were subjected to it by health personnel, and the proportion is twice as high among adolescents. Does increased pressure on the health system mean that medical professionals and resources are less available to perform FGM? Could that drive the FGM numbers down as people choose to forgo the procedure? Or, as seems likely, will girls and their parents simply turn to more dangerous options for carrying it out? And will an increasingly burdened medical system be less able to deal with the inevitable health complications caused by FGM?

Important progress has been made in the fight against FGM. Girls are a third less likely to be subjected to genital mutilation than three decades ago. In all of the top 29 countries where FGM is most frequently practiced, FGM is less common among girls aged 15 to 19 than in women aged 45 to 49. 

In some places, the decline is negligible while in others it is dramatic. Somalia, for example, has seen only a slight decline, from 99% in the older group who have undergone the procedure to 97% in the younger group. But in Liberia, FGM prevalence dropped from 85% among older women to 44% in the younger group. And in Kenya, the figure dropped from 49% to 15%.

But, says UNICEF, “progress needs to be at least 10 times faster to meet the global target of elimination by 2030. Multiple overlapping crises, including COVID-19, rising poverty, inequality and conflict, are putting millions of girls at increased risk of female genital mutilation.”