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A COVID-19 Free Region should also be FGM free : Dr. Ademola Olajide and Mubarak Mabuya

The current global Covid 19 pandemic has severely affected countries in every part of the globe. The Af- rican region has not been spared the resultant chal- lenges in the economy, public health and socio-cultur- al systems. Responses to the pandemic in the region have largely focused on prevention of importation of the virus through airport and border closures, sup- pression of transmission through social distancing, quarantines, virus testing 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 east and horn of Africa has an interest, like all its Member States in the free movement of citizens, goods and services with critical infrastructure devel- oped and deployed over years to support Member States to facilitate this process including disease sur- veillance 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 virus, as well as the economic cost on livelihood; it is important not to miss the other more insidious effects such as Female Genital Mu- tilation. The Covid-19 pandemic has invigorated an unacceptable resurgence in the incidence of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) within the region, including the risk of a spike in it’s cross border dimension. The phenomenal progress made over the last decade in reversing the practice, including enactment of laws that prohibit the practice and define punishments for perpetrators, is in jeopardy.

Closure of the protective school environment, increased household indigence due to the widespread economic upheaval, paralysis of community level platforms for transformation of norms, and access to justice mechanisms be- ing in limbo in the region are noticeable drivers of the Covid-19 induced FGM regressive curve. The harrowing possibility of a rapid increase in the number of women and girls maimed by the retrogressive practice should rekindle our zeal and transnational synergies to stem it. Mobili- zation of public health amenities and security systems for the containment of Covid-19 has constrained anti-FGM surveillance and re- sponse actions.

Endemic climatic shocks such as the land- slides,floods and droughts experienced in in the region; and a devastating pestilence akin to the most severe locust invasion in 70 years weaken community and institutional capacities to embrace and enforce shifts away from harm- ful practices like FGM and child marriage.

The shared ethnographic identity across many countries in the region predicts virtual uniformi- ty in the rise in FGM victimization during this period of a unique global emergency that mili- tates against social cohesion

The burden of FGM and 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 in 2019 renewed the impetus to eliminate the FGM practice as a transnational human rights challenge. Subse- quently, five countries, Ethiopia, Kenya, Soma- lia, Tanzania and Uganda, forged an alliance that achieved the landmark declaration to strengthen cooperation and coordination in implementation of normative frameworks and knowledge products to promote realization of an FGM free region.

This initiative included concrete actions to put an end to free movement of their citizens across their State borders for the purposes of subjecting wom- en and girls to FGM in neighboring countries.

One of the most notable commitments made by countries during the historic International Confer- ence on Population and Development (ICPD25), Nairobi Summit were the commitments to end FGM. In Kenya, the H.E President of Kenya committed to “end Female Genital Mutilation by 2022. This would be by strengthening coordina- tion in the area of legislation and policy framework, communication, advocacy, evidence generation, and supporting cross border collaboration on elim- ination of FGM.

IGAD fully appreciates the centrality of human capital development to the overall socio-economic development of its member states, especially har- nessing the optimal contribution of women. IGAD therefore within its Gender Policy and Strategy, has developed policy briefs to inform regional and national interventions in addressing gender in- equality-intensified challenges and vulnerabilities and more so now during the COVID-19 pandemic. The diffusion effect of such high-level political ef- forts against the practice has been evident in many jurisdictions in the region albeit in contextualized parlance 

Covid-19 could potentially slow these strides and push women and girls further and deeper into the gruesome indignity of FGM victimization. The ap- parent de-prioritization and complacency towards the practice as seen in the understandably loud focus in messaging and advocacy against virus, could breed impunity in the perpetuation of FGM in the region beyond the life of the pandemic. Consequently, the region needs to re-ignite civic vigilance and a rebound in the political push. In- deed, the recent decision of the Government of The Republic of Sudan to criminalize the prac- tice of FGM is a welcome indication that Mem- ber states can respond to the Covid-19 challenge while concurrently upholding the rights and well- being of women and girls.

IGAD is founded on the protection and promo- tion of human rights notwithstanding the nature of emergencies that characterize the region. It is during calamitous moments like the present Covid-19 experience that we are emboldened to firewall violation of rights and freedoms as inte- gral ingredients of peace and stability in the region. 

IGAD leverages on global and continental instru- ments like the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CE- DAW) and the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol) to demand respect and accountability for women’s rights as human rights. The institution will therefore seek to leverage it’s numerous cross border initiatives to enhance vigilance and response to deter the practice of FGM across its borders.

UNFPA’s exceptional mandate to broaden rights and choices has never been affirmed more than it is now during the Covid-19 response. Prog- ress in the region is contingent upon fidelity to the collective vision of nations during the ICPD25 Nairobi Summit that redefined the roadmap to achieving sustainable development outcomes on the basis of choice. We implore governments in the region, communities and the private sector to reinvigorate commitments and expand social and economic resources towards ending cross border FGM. It is time to ensure women’s and girls’ rights are protected, respected and upheld. A Covid-19 free region should be equally FGM free!