Authorities are concerned villagers may take advantage of COVID-19 school closures to perform FGM on girls
By Nita Bhalla
NAIROBI, April 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Village chiefs in Kenya will make house-to-house checks after reports some rural communities were taking advantage of school closures due to the coronavirus to perform female genital mutilation (FGM) on girls, officials and campaigners said.
One in five women and girls aged between 15 and 49 in Kenya have undergone the procedure, which usually involves the partial or total removal of the female genitalia and can cause a host of serious health problems, says the United Nations.
Kenya criminalised FGM in 2011 with a punishment of three years imprisonment and a US$2,000 fine, but the practice persists as some communities see it is necessary for social acceptance and increasing their daughters' marriage prospects.
Bernadette Loloju, chief executive of the semi-autonomous government agency Anti-FGM Board, said she had received reports that scores of girls had been forced to undergo FGM in Kenya's northern Samburu county after schools closed on March 16.
"We did not find any evidence girls had FGM performed on them. We did confirm one girl who was at risk and a case is registered with the police, and her mother has been arrested," said Loloju, adding the girl was aged around 12.
"We don't want to take any chances. We have to be vigilant which is why we are trying to step up efforts in light of this pandemic."
Loloju said authorities had deployed village chiefs and community workers to visit rural homesteads and report cases where girls may be at risk.
Authorities were also reaching out to remote villagers through anti-FGM campaigns and programmes on local venacular radio stations in Samburu as well as neighbouring Isiolo and Marsabit counties, she added.
An estimated 200 million girls and women worldwide have undergone FGM with the ancient ritual practised in at least 27 African countries and parts of Asia and the Middle East.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has pledged to end FGM by 2022, but women's rights groups say it is unrealistic due to insecurity, remote locations and high prevalence rates in some parts of the country.
Social distancing restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic are likely to hamper efforts further, they said, as families face increased hardships due to a lack of income and perform FGM on their daughters in order to marry them off to gain dowry.
"We are receiving increased reports of gender based violence, from FGM and child marriage to defilement and domestic violence due to women and girls being stuck indoors," said Felister Gitonga, programme officer for Equality Now.
"It's good to see the Anti-FGM Board is beefing up community vigilance. But we also need police to register cases. At the moment, the police are too occupied with enforcing restrictions related to the coronavirus."
Kenya has confirmed almost 300 cases of COVID-19, according to the Ministry of Health.
(Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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