Africa has not been spared the challenges of Covid-19 in the economy, public health and socio-cultural systems.
The region’s responses to the pandemic have largely focused on prevention of importation of the virus through airport and border closures, suppression of transmission through social distancing, quarantines, testing for the virus and clinical management of confirmed cases, movement restrictions and other preventive measures.
The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad), as a regional economic community serving the Eastern and Horn of Africa, has an interest in the free movement of citizens, goods and services with critical infrastructure developed and deployed over years to support member states to facilitate this process including disease surveillance at border crossings and beyond.
While the human toil of the pandemic is largely viewed through the lens of the mortality and morbidities linked directly to the coronavirus and the economic cost on livelihoods, we should not miss the other more insidious effects, such as female genital mutilation (FGM).
The pandemic has invigorated an unacceptable resurgence in the incidence of FGM, including the risk of a spike in its cross-border dimension. The phenomenal progress over the past decade in reversing the practice, including enactment of laws that prohibit it and define punishments for perpetrators, is in jeopardy.
School closures, increased household indigence due to the widespread economic upheaval, paralysis of community-level platforms for transformation of norms and access to justice mechanisms being in limbo are noticeable drivers of the Covid-19-induced FGM regressive curve. Mobilisation of public health amenities and security systems for the containment of Covid-19 has constrained anti-FGM surveillance and response actions.
Endemic climatic shocks like the landslides, floods and droughts and a pestilence in to the severest locust invasion in 70 years weakened community and institutional capacities to embrace and enforce shifts from harmful practices like FGM and child marriage.
The shared ethnographic identity across many countries predicts virtual uniformity in the rise in FGM victimisation. The burden of the entire spectrum of gender-based inequalities on a region where most countries are still in the nascent stages of post-conflict regeneration is staggering. The practice impedes and disrupts access to education and training for women and girls, causing a decline in their productivity.
The launch of the End Female Genital Mutilation Campaign by the African Union (AU) in 2019 renewed the impetus to eliminate the practice as a transnational human rights challenge.
An alliance between Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Tanzania and Uganda then forged that achieved the landmark declaration to strengthen cooperation and coordination in implementation of normative frameworks and knowledge products to realise an FGM-free region. This included concrete actions to put an end to free movement of citizens across the borders for subjecting women and girls to FGM in neighbouring countries.
One of the most notable commitments by countries at the historic International Conference on Population and Development’s Nairobi Summit (ICPD+25) was the commitment to end FGM. Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta committed to “end female genital mutilation by 2022 by strengthening coordination in legislation and policy framework, communication, advocacy, evidence generation and cross-border collaboration.
Igad’s Gender Policy and Strategy has briefs to inform regional and national interventions in addressing gender inequality-intensified challenges and vulnerabilities. The diffusion effect of such high-level political efforts is evident in many jurisdictions in the region, albeit in contextualised parlance.
Sadly, Covid-19 could slow these strides and push women and girls further and deeper into the gruesome indignity of FGM victimisation. The apparent de-prioritisation and complacency towards FGM, as seen in the loud focus in messaging and advocacy against the virus, could breed impunity in the perpetuation of the practice beyond the pandemic. We need to reignite civic vigilance and a rebound in the political push. The recent decision of Sudan to criminalise FGM is welcome.
International instruments like the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (“Maputo Protocol”) seek respect and accountability for women’s rights as human rights.
A Covid-19-free region should be equally FGM-free!
Dr Olajide is UNFPA Representative, Kenya. Mr Mabuya is the programme manager for Gender Affairs at Igad Secretariat, Djibouti.