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According to the United Nations (UN), approximately 200 million girls have undergone Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Since early 2020, East and West African countries have witnessed an increase in FGM as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic which puts another 2 million girls at risk.

What is FGM and why is it dangerous?

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), or female genital cutting (FGC), is a widely practiced ritual that involves the complete or partial cutting of and/or removal of the external female genitalia of young girls usually between infancy and the age of 15, for non-medical purposes. 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has classified four types of FGM. Type I refers to clitoridectomy, which is the partial/complete removal of the clitoris. Type II is clitoridectomy plus the partial/complete removal of the labia majora and labia minora. Type III, the most fatal and invasive type, is infibulation where all external genitalia is cut off and the vaginal opening made smaller by sewing the labia majora together, leaving a small opening for urination and menstruation. Type IV includes other excision techniques including piercing, incisions and cauterisation. 

The United Nations Population Fund (UNPF) notes that the origins of this practice are not tied to any specific religion or region. Traces of FGM have been found on Ancient Egyptian remains before the spread of Christianity and Islam which expels the notion that FGM is performed for religious reasons. Forms of FGM have been practiced in parts of Europe and the United States (US) as early as the 1950s to “treat” ailments specifically related to women including “hysteria” and “nymphomania”. 

If one examines the etymology of “hysteria” and “nymphomania”, they will find that these medical terms were created to associate disease or unwellness exclusively with female biology. The root word “hystera” means “uterus”, a common understanding of the word hysteria or hysterical is that someone (with a uterus) is crazy. The root “nymph” of nymphomania refers to the labia minora, a term used to describe ‘sex-crazed’ women. It is clear that the rationale for FGM, even in assumed progressive societies, is rooted in misogynistic beliefs about women’s sexuality and genitalia as something that must be controlled and regulated.

Plan International, outline some of the beliefs that surround and encourage the practice of FGM. These beliefs are related to controlling female sexuality or ‘preserving’ the family’s honor, ‘saving’ the girl for marriage, or fetching a higher bride price for a ‘chaste’ girl. Therefore, FGM takes place in a socio-cultural context with certain beliefs and circumstances that are often grounded in gender inequality and misogyny. It is important to note that FGM has no medical benefits, but increases the chance of complications with childbirth, cyst formation, keloid scarring, painful sexual intercourse, and psychological trauma of undergoing the practice. Most of the reasoning behind upholding these practices are based on the constructed social value by every member of the community except, the individual girls on which the practice is performed. 

Why has COVID-19 caused an increase in FGM in East and West Africa?

A report by the Orchid Project states that FGM has been on the rise in East and West Africa since the outbreak of COVID-19 in March 2020. As a consequence of the spread of the coronavirus, girl children remain at home because schools are closed. Widespread economic hardship due to job losses has made parents decide to marry off their daughters in exchange for a bride price. In many East and West African societies, female circumcision is often a prerequisite for marriage and determines higher bride prices. According to a 2018 brief lead by the Population Council, a direct link between FGM and child marriage is found in Ethiopia and Somaliland. Girls that undergo infibulation (FGM-type III) literally have the seal of virginity so that it is guaranteed that they are ‘pure’, they must also be deinfibulated on the wedding night in order to consummate the marriage. FGM occurs under the radar because most justice and social services are occupied with implementing COVID-19 regulations. Humanitarian aid and organisations that fight against FGM were slowed down by the lockdown and curfew orders and having their funding deprioritised or reduced. Many ‘reformed cutters’ who used to perform the circumcision returned to carrying out the practice as a last resort to earn an income during the pandemic. 

The UN set the goal of ending FGM by 2030. Kenya ambitiously aimed to end FGM by 2022 but has been one of the countries that experienced one of the highest increases in FGM during the pandemic. According to a paper by the BMJ, 2800 girls from the Kuria community in south-west Kenya, had been mutilated in October 2020 alone. Ghati Alfons, the founder of an anti-FGM community group called Safe Engage Foundation, highlights that FGM is particularly prevalent in Kuria because of the high levels of poverty and FGM began increasing earlier in the year, because of school closures. She also notes how other girls are drawn into the practice because of the incentive of gifts which make it seem as though they possess ‘agency’ and are participating by choice. However, it must be reiterated that victims of FGM are children, who cannot consent and that the practice violates their human right to bodily autonomy and puts their wellbeing at risk. 

The reason that FGM and other forms of violence against women and children have increased during the pandemic is that emergency policy planning and implementation completely lack a gender lens. This should serve as a painful lesson for the future and a basis to demand gender sensitivity.

Nirvana Govender is a postgraduate student at the University of Pretoria completing her Honors degree in International Relations. She is a tutor in the Political Sciences Department. She is also the co-creator of the grassroots community organisation, Get Involved. Please follow her page (@getinvolved_gbv) on Instagram to help support her organisation.

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