Somalia’s lockdown has led to a huge increase in female genital mutilation (FGM), with circumcisers going door-to-door offering to cut girls stuck at home during the pandemic, a charity said on Monday.
Plan International said that the crisis was undermining efforts to eradicate the practice in Somalia, which has the world’s highest FGM rate, with about 98 percent of women having been cut.
“We’ve seen a massive increase in recent weeks,” said Sadia Allin, Plan International’s head of mission in Somalia. “We want the government to ensure FGM is included in all COVID responses.”
She told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that nurses nationwide had also reported a surge in requests from parents wanting them to carry out FGM on their daughters while they were out of school because of the lockdown.
FGM, which affects 200 million girls and women globally, involves the partial or total removal of the external genitalia. In Somalia, the vaginal opening is also often sewn up — a practice called infibulation.
The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) has warned that the pandemic could lead to an extra 2 million girls worldwide being cut in the next decade as the crisis stymies global efforts to end the practice.
Allin said that families in Somalia were taking advantage of school closures to carry out FGM so that the girls had time to recover from the ritual, which can take weeks.
The economic downturn caused by novel coronavirus has also spurred cutters to seek out more business, she said.
“The cutters have been knocking on doors, including mine, asking if there are young girls they can cut. I was so shocked,” said Allin, who has two daughters aged five and nine.
Restrictions on movement during the lockdown were making it harder to raise awareness of the dangers of FGM in communities, she said.
“FGM is one of the most extreme manifestations of violence against girls and women,” said Allin, who has been cut herself.
“It’s a lifetime torture for girls. The pain continues ... until the girl goes to the grave. It impacts her education, ambition ... everything,” she said.
The UNFPA, which estimates that 290,000 girls will be cut in Somalia this year, said that the spike was also linked to Ramadan, which is a traditional time for girls to be cut.
UNFPA Somalia representative Anders Thomsen said that the pandemic was shifting world attention and funding away from combatting FGM.
However, there were also grounds for optimism, he said, pointing to the criminalization of FGM in neighboring Sudan.
“There are glimmers of hope, and we do hope and believe that may rub off on Somalia, which I would call ground zero for FGM,” he said.
New data also showed that families are beginning to switch to less severe forms of FGM, with 46 percent of 15 to 19-year-olds having been infibulated compared with more than 80 percent of their mothers.
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