Women’s rights groups fear lockdowns to stem the spread of COVID-19 will see a spike in cases of female genital mutilation (FGM) worldwide, with Australian activists concerned the practice could be on the rise behind closed doors.
- Female genital mutilation is often seen as a precondition for marriage
- There are reports of an alarming spike in cases in Somalia, with cutters going door-to-door
- Activists in Australia fear a lack of calls means the practice is continuing unabated here
In Somalia, aid groups have seen an “alarming spike” in demand for FGM services as cutters are going door-to-door during coronavirus lockdowns and school closures, Plan International Australia has warned.
The United Nations Population Fund, meanwhile, recently predicted some 2 million extra cases of FGM and 13 million additional child marriages would occur over the next decade due to COVID-19.
But in Australia, it’s the relative silence that has anti-FGM campaigners worried.
WARNING: This story contains graphic descriptions which may disturb some readers.
FGM, sometimes called female circumcision, is the partial or total cutting of the clitoris and other external genitalia and in Somalia, the vaginal opening is often sewn up — a procedure called infibulation, the most severe form of FGM.
FGM has no health benefits and can leave girls with infections, bleeding, chronic pain and psychological injuries. The procedure can result in death.
Cutters going door-to-door during pandemic lockdown in Somalia
Sadia Allin said she was alarmed when a woman knocked on her door and offered to cut her daughters, aged just five and nine.
Ms Allin, Plan International’s head of mission in Somalia, was subjected to genital mutilation when she was a child and is determined that her daughters will not undergo it.
“I was shocked,” she said. “What was really scary is — my girls are safe with me from FGM — but I was so scared for the girls next door.”
She said healthcare workers across the country and nurses they partner with reported a spike in requests for FGM to be carried out while daughters were home from school.
“The restrictive impact of COVID-19 has forced girls out of school and that has increased their vulnerability to forms of violence in their homes, including FGM.”
Ms Allin said FGM is often seen as an essential part of womanhood and a precondition for marriage in Somalia.
Somalia’s constitution states that the circumcision of girls is “tantamount to torture” and is prohibited, but the country does not have a law against FGM.
Ms Allin said what was concerning was that some cutters who had given up FGM had now resumed the harmful practice due to the economic crisis spurred by the lockdown.
“We are losing the gains we made,” she said.
“You might say the number [of girls subjected to FGM] in Somalia was already 98 per cent, so what’s the difference? The reason for the alarm is the very short period of time.
The African continent has over 95,000 cases of coronavirus and nearly 3,000 deaths, according to the African Centres for Disease Control.
In Somalia, there are just over 1,500 cases and 61 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 map.
Silence in Australia sparks fears FGM continues unchecked
African-Australian activist Khadija Gbla said she usually gets half a dozen calls each month from concerned teachers, social workers, or girls themselves at risk of FGM here.
But in the past couple of months, she’s not had a single one — and “that is the most dangerous thing,” she told the ABC.
“Nothing. It’s been crickets, complete crickets, that is the worrisome part of it,” Ms Gbla said.
“The restrictions in place have created a breeding ground for this to take place.”
In Australia, an estimated 53,000 women have undergone FGM but Ms Gbla said there are 11 girls “at risk” of FGM in Australia each day.
FGM is illegal in Australia and there have been three successful prosecutions against the practice in recent years.
Ms Gbla said while trips overseas to countries where FGM is commonplace have stopped due to global travel bans, that was not much comfort for her foundation, The Desert Flower Centre, which is aware of individuals in Australia who will perform FGM for a little as $1,000 or $2,000.
“What we know is that people have always found ways around travel and they have found people in Australia who are willing to do it,” she said.
Olayide Ogunsiji, a senior lecturer at the Western Sydney University school of nursing and midwifery, said she had not heard of any rise in FGM cases here, but was concerned that could be due to a lack of reporting.
Dr Ounsiji feared lockdowns would enable parents to pressure their daughters into undergoing FGM, adding she was concerned about the broader impact of the pandemic on sexual and reproductive health in Australia’s migrant and refugee communities.
The projected global increase, she said, was “shocking, but not surprising”.
“The reason I say it’s not surprising is because of the closed-door secrecy that surrounds the practice itself,” she said.
Ms Gbla added that seeking help for women abroad at this time was made more difficult due to shutdowns, citing a case where a woman in Turkey had reached out to her — the woman had been subjected to FGM and the mutilation had made urinating and menstruating unbearably painful.
That was three weeks ago and Ms Gbla said she has been unable to connect with medical services on the ground there.
“There’s always been a silence around it, given it’s such a cultural practice, and then you add COVID-19 into the mix, so kids are not having access to services … shelter and support,” she said.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Women Marise Payne has been approached for comment.