COVID-19 pandemic putting girls at high risk of FGM in Kenya


Everlyne Komba, Gender, Governance and Development Expert, Nairobi, Kenya

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Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and Early marriages has affected the social and economic wellbeing of numerous generations of women and girls. Globally, many campaigns have been mooted to help end these harmful traditions. However, even amidst efforts to arrest these harmful cultural practices, not all actors share in this vision. In some FGM practicing regions, disparate voices continue to champion continuation of harmful cultures rather than advancing human rights of women and girls. These factions seem to take advantage of emergency situations such as COVID-19 pandemic to perpetuate such harmful practices.

In situations of conflicts and disaster, FGM and early marriage practices present a life-threatening, health and human rights challenge. In cases of FGM, a survivor has no choice to refuse or pursue other options without severe social, physical, or cultural consequences. In emergencies, these consequences border on extreme intolerance or ethno-terrorism. This includes social sanctions such as being ostracized or suffering psychological abuse. It includes invoking of cultural sanctions that can border on, being cursed and excommunication. It also comes with threats of physical harm such as death threats or risk of violence being verbally communicated or actualized. All of these constitute a violation of international human rights law and principles of gender equality as well as National anti-FGM laws.

Since 2010 when Kenya adopted a progressive constitution, the campaign against harmful traditional practices has intensified. Today Kenya is counted as being among the countries where considerable progress against the practice of FGM has recorded a steady decline. However this has not happened at the speed and scale to meet global commitments. Therefore it has been reassuring that the Government of Kenya has pledged to end FGM by 2022. This ambitious target comes a whole eight years ahead of the Sustainable Development Goal 5 deadline, in a country beset by numerous development challenges. While achievable, the threat of emerging challenges such as global shocks like food crisis or economic crisis can delay attainment of target. There is also the threat presented by a small but determined counter movement that challenges the ban of FGM.

It is in this context and with the foregoing in mind that the recent global outbreak of COVID 19 has raised the specter of an increase of FGM and early marriages. The ongoing pandemic has created the perfect conditions for proponents of FGM and early marriage to carry out their perverted motives. The closure of schools, a pause by rule of law for institutions and organs alongside an overwhelmed health system including requirements for social distancing has created a conducive condition resulting in the resumption of FGM and early marriage activities.

Most recently, as the world was consumed with news about COVID 19, one such incident was brought to my attention with the following message.

“Hello guys, please pray for me this evening that I may have peace in my heart, I feel so troubled and burdened for young girls and generally women in this place. I mean I have heard of cases for FGM from close friends and kids in school who have gone through it and even some who have shared how they were forced into their current marriages but had never thought that it would find me at my doorstep! I just witnessed a 10yr old (Ifra daughter to our cook, those who came to visit a couple of months ago met her) married off today in my neighbourhood and there's nothing much I could do, and I feel so troubled and burdened by the act. You should know the answers I got when I tried to show concern!I'm told if I insist and take a step further on the issue my life could be at risk. Even that being said I still are praying and planning to involve authorities who possibly are "downkenyans" Please pray for peace and wisdom on how to handle it. Pray also for Ifra that God will watch over her and take care of her. I'm from talking to her father like an hour ago and he's completely denied it and has his version of story that sounds very convincing but just a big lie. Oh my! Just pray as the Lord leads.”*

Though this distress message may not be representative enough, it presents a microcosm of what seems to be already happening at the grassroots levels even as competent authorities remain occupied with responding to COVID 19. The dilemma posed therefore is that of whose life should be saved. Corona virus disease poses an immediate threat to life, hence demanding immediate attention to curb its spread and manage patients, while at the same time because of it, some proponents take advantage of the diverted attention by authorities to rob of the future of some young girls subjecting them FGM and early marriage.

*Some details have been changed to protect identity of the persons involved