Experts say instances of FGM rose alarmingly during the pandemic in Somaliland and other parts of Africa as lockdowns kept girls out of school, making them vulnerable to cutters
HARGEISA, Somaliland — Safia Ibrahim’s business was in trouble. COVID-19 had taken hold in Somaliland, in the Horn of Africa. The 50-year-old widow with 10 children to support set out door to door on the capital’s outskirts, a razor at hand, taking advantage of the lockdown to seek work with a question: Have your daughters been cut?
Her business is female circumcision, learned at the age of 15, performed hundreds of times and now being passed along to her daughters. She congratulates young girls upon completing the procedure: “Pray for me, I’ve made you a woman now.”
She believes her work keeps girls pure for marriage. “This is our Somali culture. Our great-grandmothers, grandfathers — all of them used to practice,” she said, even though she now knows there’s no medical or even religious reason for the removal of external genitalia, which can cause excessive bleeding, problems with urination and childbirth, infections and even death. But it remains legal in Somaliland, so Ibrahim will continue until authorities tell her to stop.
Her story echoes through Muslim and other communities in a broad strip across Africa south of the Sahara, as well as some countries in Asia. In many places, COVID-19 brought stark challenges to efforts by health workers and activists to stop what they along with the United Nations and others call female genital mutilation.
Government officials, health workers and advocates say instances of FGM rose alarmingly during the pandemic in Somaliland and other parts of Africa as lockdowns kept girls out of school, making them vulnerable to “cutters” like Ibrahim, and economic pressures led impoverished parents to give their daughters in marriage, for which FGM often remains a cultural expectation, if not a demand.
In the early months of the pandemic, the U.N. Population Fund warned that disruptions to prevention programs could lead to 2 million cases over the next decade that otherwise might have been averted, and that progress toward the global goal of ending FGM by 2030 would be badly affected.
Hard data are lacking on the increase in FGM cases, but officials point to anecdotal evidence, local surveys and the observations of medical and advocacy groups. In Somaliland, an arid region that separated from Somalia three decades ago and seeks recognition as an independent country, community assessments by government workers and aid groups found that FGM rose during the six-month pandemic lockdown. Advocacy groups say they’ve also seen increases in Kenya, Tanzania, Sudan and Somalia.
Sadia Allin, Somalia director for the Plan International nongovernmental organization, said she was alarmed when an FGM practitioner came asking about her daughters in Somaliland’s capital, Hargeisa.
“I asked her what she wanted to do with the girls. She said, ‘I want to cut them,’ and that was the shock of my life,” Allin said. “I did not expect that something like that can happen in this age and time, because of the awareness and the work that we have been doing.”
She said their survey found that 61% of residents of Hargeisa and Somaliland’s second-largest city, Burao, believed that FGM was increasing under the lockdown.
Mothers give in and allow their girls to be cut, Allin said, “because the social pressure is greater than the pain.”
FGM often is still performed in homes. Ibrahim demonstrated the procedure for The Associated Press in her branch-barred courtyard. Using the palm of a female translator’s hand to stand as a girl’s genital area, she held a syringe just above the skin and pretended to inject anesthetic — a relatively new addition to her routine.
Then, with a razor blade, she swiped at where the girl’s clitoris would be. Further slashes and the labia were gone. Finally, with needles and thread, she pretended to sew up the girl’s opening, leaving a small hole for urine and the menstrual blood that would begin in the years to come.
Somaliland, with a population of well over 3 million, already had the highest rate of FGM in the world before the pandemic, according to the U.N. children’s agency, with 98% of girls undergoing it between ages 5 and 11. The majority undergo the most severe kind, being sewn up until marriage, as opposed to the less severe kinds where the clitoris is cut or the clitoris and labia are removed.
Thorns have been used in place of needle and thread in the most basic of such procedures in rural areas. Before marriage, some rural women are still placed on a sheet and inspected so witnesses can confirm that she has remained “sealed.”
In Somaliland, COVID-19 hit as activists and officials said they were gaining momentum in securing an anti-FGM policy, a government position backed by the country’s Cabinet. They call it a crucial step toward a law barring FGM for good. That would bring Somaliland in line with regional neighbors such as Djibouti or, more recently, Sudan.
The work has never been easy. Somaliland’s president, Muse Bihi Abdi, has said he wants to make the practice illegal. But many religious authorities, along with others in the conservative society, have pushed back.
Some claim progress in promoting a less harsh kind of FGM, or in making sure it’s performed by health workers in a medical setting. But activists say even when performed by a health worker with sterile medical tools, FGM is damaging and a violation against a minor.
The tensions were clear in the Somaliland capital on Feb. 6, when government and civil society leaders gathered to mark the International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM, a U.N.-sponsored awareness event.
Former first lady Edna Adan Ismail — the first person in Somaliland to speak out publicly against FGM, almost five decades ago — gave a fiery speech in favor of banning the practice entirely. But the government’s religious affairs minister, Abdirizak Hussein Ali Albani, would not go so far. He acknowledged that the most severe type of FGM can damage a girl’s reproductive organs but said the least severe type that nicks at the clitoris should remain optional.
This story is part of a yearlong series on how the pandemic is impacting women in Africa, most acutely in the least developed countries. The Associated Press series is funded by the European Journalism Centre’s European Development Journalism Grants program, which is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The AP is responsible for all content.
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