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COVID-19 Creates Increased Risk of Female Genital Mutilation

FILE - A counselor holds up cards used to educate women about female genital mutilation (FGM).
FILE - A counselor holds up cards used to educate women about female genital mutilation (FGM).

Human Rights activists fear COVID-19 increases the risk that millions of women and girls may be subjected to female genital mutilation. They are calling for an end to the barbaric practice on this International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation.

More than 200 million girls and women alive today are suffering the physical and mental consequences of female genital mutilation. FGM involves the partial or total removal of external female genitalia. It is mainly practiced in 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, mostly between infancy and adolescence.

Leading United Nations agencies and human rights activists warn the COVID-19 pandemic puts girls at great risk of FGM, which thrives in isolation. They note lockdowns and school closures make girls particularly vulnerable to abuse.

Without urgent action, they say 2 million more girls could be at risk of FGM over the next decade. World Health Organization Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says this is in addition to the more than 3 million girls potentially facing the practice every year.

“Let us be clear, female genital mutilation is a violation of human rights and has no medical benefit," he said. "It can result in complications and health risks that can have both short-and-long term health and social effects on women and girls. We must stop FGM and we must ensure that no health worker performs it ever.”

WHO reports immediate complications from FGM can include severe pain, excessive bleeding, tetanus and other infections, shock and death. Long-term complications can include urinary, vaginal and sexual problems. FGM can lead to complications in childbirth and newborn deaths. This harmful practice is known to cause psychological problems, such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

A U.N. action plan for eliminating FGM by 2030 will cost around $2.4 billion to implement over the next decade. To put this large amount of money in perspective, the U.N. says the cost of protecting girls from this violation breaks down to less than $100 per girl.

A WHO study in 27 countries has found the economic costs of treating health complications of FGM comes to $1.4 billion a year. This amount, it says, is expected to rise to $2.3 billion a year in 30 years If FGM prevalence remains the same.