For 35 years, Yatta Fahnbulleh earned a living in north-western Liberia by initiating girls into adulthood through rituals that included female genital mutilation (FGM) – a practice that violates girls’ bodies and their human rights. She is one of many FGM practitioners who wanted to stop but who could not find an alternative way to support herself and her family. Now she is a caterer, trained along with some 300 other traditional FGM practitioners through the EU-UN Spotlight Initiative, who are equipped to earn an income from alternative sources such as climate-smart agriculture, making soap, or tailoring.
The programme is one of the many ways in which UN Women and our partners are working with traditional and cultural leaders to change the norms that sustain harmful practices such as FGM. Continuing this work is more important than ever now that the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are threatening livelihoods and increasing financial vulnerabilities, contributing to the risk of backsliding on important progress in gender equality.
Compared to three decades ago, girls today are one third less likely to undergo FGM, but the COVID-19 pandemic appears to be increasing the practice. Not only is it limiting our scope for critical prevention work, but many traditional cutters badly in need of an income during the economic downturn have started again, approaching families directly, door to door, in search of work. Without action, by 2030 we could see as many as 2 million FGM cases that could otherwise have been avoided. Data from UN Women and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) show that the crisis will push 96 million people into extreme poverty by 2021, something which can lead to FGM and child marriage being used as negative coping mechanisms to ease extreme physical and financial uncertainty. Girls from the most marginalized groups will be at even higher risk of FGM and child marriage. Pandemic-related school closures provide increased opportunities for FGM to be undertaken on girls at home, which only heightens the risk of health complications as well as the transmission of COVID-19. And with the crisis putting 11 million girls at high risk of never returning to school, future generations of uneducated women are more likely to support the continuation of the practice.
This International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM is a moment to lead change wherever we have a voice and influence; to fund the approaches we know work and support women’s organizations to do so; to demand accountability for community and state actions; to provide essential support for health and social services for survivors of FGM; and to listen to the voices of adolescent girls and young women, and make it possible for them to decide on what happens to their own lives and bodies.
Stories of change such as Yatta’s underline how much is possible when the necessary support and will are in place, and how important it is for the lives of millions of girls in current and future generations to grow up as healthy, educated young women. COVID-19 has shown us that we cannot take the successes on this issue for granted. We have a chance to come together in united action to end FGM and all forms of violence against women and girls, at UN Women’s upcoming Generation Equality Forum – the most important convening for gender equality investment and implementation in a quarter-century. Through its Action Coalitions such as on gender-based violence and sexual reproductive health and rights, respectively, we will be harnessing broad-based will and resources to push forward with this important work focusing on adolescent girls. Let’s use this opportunity to #Act2EndFGM and together realize a world that is truly gender-equal.
SOURCE: UN WOMEN