How COVID-19 undermines cross border efforts to curb the vice
Kampala, Uganda | PATRICIA AKANKWATSA | As countries introduce more comprehensive anti-Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) laws and policies, cross-border FGM has emerged as a new trend among practising communities to evade prosecution. And it has been escalated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
While speaking at the International Day to Zero Tolerance to FGM on 06th February, Kate Airey the British high commissioner to Uganda said that the impact of COVID-19 on the fight against FGM has been devastating.
“We know that COVID-19 could have a significant impact on the effort to end FGM. According to the latest estimates from United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), we could see a third reduction in the progress towards ending FGM by 2030,” she said.
Airey says that one of the key priorities of the UK government this year is to support women and girls to recover from the impact of the COVID-19 and help them build back better.
“UK is already a world leader in support to the Africa-led movement to end FGM,” she said.
FGM is the partial of total removal of the external genitalia of girls and young women in some traditional cultures.
It is estimated that 2 million more FGM cases could be recorded over the next decade globally because of interruption in FGM prevention programmes due to COVID-19.
According to the Uganda Demographic Health Survey (UDHS) report, in 2016, the national prevalence of the practice among girls and women 15-49 years was determined to be 0.32%, a decline from 0.64%, which was reported in 2006. These overall low rates mask significant variations in incidence across geographic regions and ethnic groups.
The vast majority of FGM takes place in the regions of Karamoja and Sebei, where overall prevalence is reported to be 26.7%. Six districts are said to have exceptionally high rates, including Moroto, Nakapiripirit and Amudat (Karamoja); Kween, Kapchorwa and Bukwo (Sebei).
Prevalence rates in some sub-counties are as high as 67.3% (in Tapac, Moroto District) and 56% (in Loroo, Amudat District). Several other sub-counties have rates above 50%.
The practice is deeply embedded in social and cultural norms, particularly among the Pokot, Kadama, Tepeth and Sabiny ethnic groups, among whom it was reported in 2013 that more than 50% of girls and women 15-49 had undergone the procedure.
In March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic began to unfold, increasing numbers of Ugandan girls and young women were said to be crossing into Kenya to be cut.
Peace Mutuuzo, the Minister of State for Gender and Culture, said although the government, NGOs and others have employed numerous approaches to eliminating FGM in Uganda through community engagement to highlight its causes and consequences, cross border FGM is still an issue.
“The threat of being apprehended leads some to go even farther afield, to Kenya, where friends and relatives, who often share ethnicity, customs and traditions can assist in procuring the procedure,” she says.
“Sometimes girls and women are taken across against their wishes; at other times they willingly travel or make the necessary arrangements on their behalf,” she said.
In 2010, the practice was made illegal with the passing of the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act, which criminalises those who cut or attempt to cut girls or women, and those who seek to procure FGM on their own or others’ behalf.
In the districts of eastern Uganda where FGM is most common, community members have argued that although this ban has helped to change attitudes towards the practice, it has also driven the practice underground.
Those families that want their girls to be cut have to find ways of doing so without drawing the attention of the authorities or of those who might report them.
This often means performing the practice in hiding, in a private home, under cover of night, in a home community or elsewhere and with the closure of schools and lockdown, girls stuck at home, the vice was easily practised.
A 2017 study conducted by UNICEF Kenya and the Anti-FGM Board of Kenya found that travel also takes place in the opposite direction: approximately 70% of a randomly selected sample of women who had experienced FGM had travelled to Uganda to be cut. Circumcisers are also reported to cross from Kenya into Uganda to perform FGM.
Curbing cross border FGM
Stopping cross-border FGM is a rising priority for governments in the East Africa region.
The East African Community Prohibition of FGM Bill was passed by the East African Legislative Assembly (Kenya, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda) in 2016 to ensure that all member states share the same definition and commitment to prosecute cases of cross-border FGM.
The Bill also calls for the establishment of a regional coordination body, and the need to implement initiatives to eliminate it.
The Regional Inter-Ministerial Declaration to End Cross-border Female Genital Mutilation in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Somalia (2019) calls for similar actions, as does the Pan African Parliament action plan to end FGM in Africa (2016).
Both Kenya and Uganda have specific provisions for cross-border FGM offences that apply to nationals and foreigners, whether within or outside the country.