Plan International condemns the trend as “worrying” evidence that FGM is increasing as the pandemic forces girls to spend more time at home, placing many at greater risk of gender-based violence.
Sadia Allin, Country Director for Plan International Somalia, said: “We have heard reports of group gatherings where up to 20 girls have been subjected to FGM in places like Abdaal and Dhalocad, in the Sahil region.
“This is extremely worrying and is further evidence that awareness of the dangers of this harmful practice has reduced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Being out of school increases risk of FGM
A Plan International assessment carried out in Hargeysa and Burao in Somaliland last year found that 42% of adults believe that being out of education increases a girls’ risk of undergoing FGM, which traditionally takes place during the school holidays.
there is a real risk that the progress we have made in raising awareness of the dangers of FGM and encouraging communities to stop the practice will be lost
At the same time, programmes to prevent and raise awareness of the dangers of the practice, which has no medical benefit, have had to stop or be scaled back due to lockdown restrictions.
In the same survey, 61% of respondents said they believe that FGM has increased because of the pandemic.
According to UNICEF, Somalia has the highest rates of FGM in the world, with 98% of girls undergoing it between the ages of 5 and 11.
The violent practice is still legal in the country and is deeply entrenched in Somali society. For parents, it is often seen as a necessary part of upholding family honour and a pre-condition for marriage.
Schools have now re-opened, but there are growing concerns among teachers and community workers that many girls have not returned to their classes due to increased rates of early marriage and FGM, and the economic pressures caused by COVID-19.
The assessment also found that of the 25% of children who were not attending school prior to the pandemic, nearly three-quarters (73%) were girls.
We must scale-up FGM prevention programmes and care for survivors
On International Day of Zero Tolerance towards FGM, the organisation says that programmes to prevent FGM and provide care for survivors need to be urgently prioritised and funding substantially scaled up.
Plan International is also calling on policymakers in Somalia to outlaw FGM and strengthen sexual and reproductive health rights, while tackling the deep-rooted inequalities and social norms which allow the practice to exist.
“Without renewed efforts, there is a real risk that the progress we have made in raising awareness of the dangers of FGM and encouraging communities to stop the practice will be lost,” Allin continued.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Plan International and partners have been continuing to raise vital awareness of the need to protect girls from FGM.
In Somalia, this has included broadcasting radio messages about the devastating consequences the practice can have on girls’ health, making it clear that it is not required by religion and calling on communities to stop the practice.