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Is The Pandemic Causing A Surge In Female Genital Mutilation?

Students rehearse a poem that they will recite at an event advocating against female genital mutilation at the Imbirikani Girls High School in Kenya.
Siegfried Modola
Students rehearse a poem that they will recite at an event advocating against female genital mutilation at the Imbirikani Girls High School in Kenya.

In early December, Christine Ghati Alfons taught a menstrual hygiene class to a group of girls, 10 to 15 years old, in the ethnic Kuria community in Migori County, an impoverished, rural area in southwest Kenya. Normally, she says, the class has 25 students. On this day, only 17 girls showed up.

"We lost some of these girls," says Ghati Alfons, founder of the Safe Engage Foundation, a community-based group that works to end female genital mutilation (FGM).

According to Ghati Alfons, the eight missing girls had all undergone "the cut," as FGM is often called; two of them had then been married off, the other six were home recovering. Nine other girls who attended the class had also been subjected to genital cutting in recent months, she says.

Ghati Alfons' missing students are part of a massive wave of girls believed to have been subjected to FGM, and in many cases, subsequently married off, since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. It's happening not just in Kenya but across East and West Africa, according to aSeptember report from the Orchid Project, a London-based nonprofit that works with global partners to end FGM. The practice occurs in many parts of the world, though the Orchid Project's report highlighted the pandemic-era surge in Africa. It also attempted to gather information about parts of Asia where FGM is prevalent but was unable to draw conclusions because of a lack of systemic reporting.

Anti-FGM activists say lockdowns and school closures during the pandemic left many girls at home, vulnerable to genital cutting in communities that see the practice as a prerequisite for marriage and, in some places, as a rite of passage. Girls who have not been cut might be shunned by the community or considered not fit for marriage.

"The girls are normally protected and shielded by the fact of being in school, which is an alternative to marriage," says Domtila Chesang, founder of I-Rep Foundation, a community-based group aimed at eradicating FGM in West Pokot County in Western Kenya.

Economic pressures heightened by the pandemic have led many struggling parents to seek bride prices — the payment of goods such as cattle to a family for a bride.

"These girls are not just being cut. They are also being forcibly married off. And a girl that has had FGM is worth more. It's seen as an investment into the girl and her ability to be married off," says Nimco Ali, an activist who was born in Somaliland and subjected to FGM. She now lives in London, where she leads The Five Foundation, a global partnership to end FGM.

FGM can have long-lasting impacts on health, including scarring, urinary incontinence, painful sexual intercourse and complications during childbirth, as well as psychological consequences such as anxiety and depression.

In parts of West Africa, some former cutters who had abandoned FGM have returned to the practice "because it was a way that they saw that they could obtain income at this difficult time," says Ebony Riddell Bamber, head of policy and advocacy at the Orchid Project. But the increase in FGM is particularly startling in Kenya, because the country, which outlawed the practice in 2011, was widely seen as making real strides toward eradicating it. Last year, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta made an ambitious pledge to stamp out FGM by 2022. Then came the pandemic, which redirected policing and other resources elsewhere, allowing local traditional leaders to flout the law.

Around 21% of Kenyan girls and women aged 15 to 49 have undergone FGM. But the prevalence varies dramatically. It's nearly universal among some ethnic groups and practically nonexistent among others, according to UNICEF.

Ghati Alfons says FGM remains widespread among Kenya's Kuria community, many of whom live in "abject poverty." She explains: "They don't even have something to eat, but here comes someone who is offering them some money in exchange for [marrying] their daughters."

Ghati Alfons says that traditionally among the Kuria people, cuttings took place beginning in November, at the end of the Kenyan school year. But this year, school closuresthat began in March left girls exposed at home, and the cuttings began much earlier. As many as 2,800 girls — some as young as 7 or 8 years old — in Kuria are believed to have been cut between September and mid-October, when Kenyan schools partially reopened, according to estimates from the Five Foundation based on reports from activists on the ground.

"Normally they cut for two weeks, but this time they went for more than four weeks," Ghati Alfons says. "So that means more girls were cut and many girls are now not even back to school." She says many of the girls subjected to FGM have been married off, and many others did not return to school because they needed time to heal.

After being cut, Kuria girls are publicly showered with shoes, clothes and other gifts, which can serve as an enticement to other girls to undergo the procedure, Ghati Alfons says. "I grew up longing for the cuts because of the gifts," she says. She says she changed her mind after her mother told her that her late father had been adamantly opposed to FGM.

Samburu County, a rural, pastoralist region of northern Kenya, also saw a sharp increase in girls being subjected to genital mutilation during the pandemic, says Josephine Kulea, founder and executive director of the Samburu Girls Foundation, which works to prevent FGM on girls as young as 7 by convincing their families to enroll them in school and supporting them through university.

Kulea says Samburu County has high rates of illiteracy, and the girls who do get educated attend boarding schools. But when schools closed in March, girls returned to their villages at a time when they were hosting mass circumcisions of boys. "So when the girls went back to the villages, it was an opportunity to cut them too," she says.

Kulea says her group alone reported more than 500 cases of female genital mutilation and child marriages to the authorities from just three Samburu villages between March and July, but she estimates the number of Samburu girls affected may have been twice that amount. "You can tell who has been cut by how the girls are walking," she says.

"I'm sure in January when schools reopen there will be very few girls back in school, because most of them got married," she says.

Chesang says in Kenya's West Pokot County, over 1,000 girls fell victim to mass cuttings earlier this year, though she says the government disputes that number. Her group is currently sheltering about 25 girls they rescued from FGM. "There are also some girls who have been forced into marriage that I tried to save but failed," Chesang says. She, too, worries that many girls who were cut in her area will never return to school, because they've been married off or have become pregnant.

Chesang, Kulea and Ghati Alfons all say the cuttings in their respective regions have slowed down. In part, that's because so many girls have already been subjected to FGM. But they all agree that the Kenyan government has stepped up its efforts to enforce anti-FGM laws and punish perpetrators in the wake of Kenyan media coverage of the spike in cuttings and the ensuing public outcry.

Some of that media coverage came in October, after Ghati Alfons and other anti-FGM activists shared videos on social media showing hundreds of Kuria girls being paraded and celebrated in the streets after being subjected to FGM.

"The airing of the issues on national television really worked," Ghati Alfons says. "And that is one thing that I feel so proud of and so happy about this year."

It's one thing to have laws against FGM, Ali says, but you also need activists on the ground to hold local leaders accountable for enforcing them.

"Unless you're within communities doing the work day in, day out, so when times like the pandemic occur, you can be there to actively prevent and protect girls, we will keep on seeing these peaks" in FGM, Riddell Bamber says.

And Ali wants to hold Kenya's president to his promise to end the practice by 2022. That goal is "beyond ambitious," she says. "Now, he has to step up to the plate to actually start to protect the girls in the rural communities."

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Maria Godoy is a senior science and health editor and correspondent with NPR News. Her reporting can be heard across NPR's news shows and podcasts. She is also one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.