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Call to prevent Covid-19 pandemic resulting in two million FGM cases 'that would otherwise be averted'

The UNFPA has called for urgent action to be taken to protect girls around the world.

Knives, razor bales and a sewing needle previously used to cut and sew girls in Garissa County, Kenya.
Knives, razor bales and a sewing needle previously used to cut and sew girls in Garissa County, Kenya.
Image: Órla Ryan

URGENT ACTION IS needed to prevent the Covid-19 pandemic resulting in two million girls undergoing female genital mutilation (FGM) in the next decade in cases that would otherwise have been averted, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has warned.

The pandemic is also projected to result in 13 million additional child marriages between now and 2030.

An estimated 4.1 million girls will be subjected to FGM around the world this year, and 33,000 girls under the age of 18 are forced into marriages, usually to much older men, every day, the State of World Population 2020 notes.

FGM is an invasive procedure which entails partial or total removal of female external genitalia or other injury to female genital organs for non-medical reasons. The procedure is mostly carried out on young girls between infancy and age 15.

The practice is most prevalent in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, and in some some cultures girls are deemed ‘unfit’ for marriage until they undergo the procedure.

Around 200 million women and girls around the world have undergone FGM, something that can have lifelong physical and psychological effects.

An analysis by the UNFPA, Avenir Health, Johns Hopkins University (US) and Victoria University (Australia) earlier this year looked at the potential consequences of Covid-19 pandemic-related disruptions on both harmful practices.

If the pandemic causes a two-year delay in FGM-prevention programmes, researchers projected that two million FGM would occur over the next decade that would otherwise have been averted.

If the pandemic causes a one-year average delay in interventions to end child marriage, considered a conservative estimate, some 7.4 million more child marriages are projected to occur over the next decade that otherwise could have been averted.

In addition, the pandemic-caused economic downturn is projected to result in an estimated 5.6 million additional child marriages taking place between 2020 and 2030. The total effect of the Covid-19 pandemic is therefore projected to result in 13 million additional child marriages, according to the report.

The report states that ending child marriage and FGM worldwide is possible within 10 years by scaling up efforts to “keep girls in school longer and teach them life skills and to engage men and boys in social change”.

Investments totaling $3.4 billion (about €3 billion) a year up to 2030 would end these two harmful practices and “end the suffering of an estimated 84 million girls”, the report notes.

‘Robbing them of their rights’

“Harmful practices against girls cause profound and lasting trauma, robbing them of their right to reach their full potential,” UNFPA Executive Director Dr Natalia Kanem said.

“We must tackle the problem by tackling the root causes, especially gender-biased norms. We must do a better job of supporting communities’ own efforts to understand the toll these practices are taking on girls and the benefits that accrue to the whole of society by stopping them.”

In the report, the UNFPA also notes that action must be taken to prevent other harmful practices such as breast ironing and so-called virginity testing.

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Also, an extreme preference for sons over daughters in some countries has fuelled gender-biased sex selection or extreme neglect that leads to their death as children, resulting in 140 million “missing females”, the UNFPA notes.

The report adds that economies and the legal systems that support them must be restructured to guarantee every woman equal opportunities.

Changing rules for property inheritance, for example, “can eliminate a powerful incentive for families to favour sons over daughters and help to eliminate child marriage”.

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Órla Ryan

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