The UN estimates that 200 million women and girls around the world have undergone female genital mutilation (FGM), with 80 per cent of cases occurring in Africa. The impact of Covid-19 has made some of the statistics on FGM even worse. Switzerland is committed to defending fundamental human rights: preventing and combating sexual and gender-based violence is a priority of its foreign policy and of its work in its partner countries.
200 million women and girls: that's 25 times the population of Switzerland. It's a figure that deserves to be in the public eye this 6 February, a day the United Nations has designated as the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation
"This very painful practice has lifelong physical and psychological effects," explains the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). "Some 44 million of those who have undergone FGM are girls under the age of 15. Africa is by far the continent most affected by the issue of FGM, with 80 per cent of known cases."
A violation of human rights
A number of Switzerland's priority countries and regions in East Africa are affected by this problem. "Somalia, for example, has the highest rate of FGM in the world, with around 98 per cent of women having undergone the procedure," explains Martine Pochon, regional protection adviser for the Greater Horn of Africa. "In Sudan, which has just passed a law forbidding FGM, the figure still stands at 90 per cent." FGM has been practised for millennia in Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya, and is still common today. It is, however, an undeniable violation of the fundamental rights of women.
Recent developments linked to Covid-19 have worsened the problem. "There was an increase in cases of FGM in Sudan in 2020. This was partly due to lockdown measures and the closure of schools," says Pochon, speaking from the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, where Switzerland's cooperation office for the Horn of Africa is located. "Girls stayed at home, which allowed the operation to take place and left enough time during the lockdown for them to recover."
Another major issue is that Covid-19 and related measures have slowed or even halted efforts on the ground to combat FGM. "Covid-19 has affected our partners' capacity to prevent and respond to the abuse – notably by restricting their efforts to coordinate, raise awareness and maintain a presence on the ground, and by forcing the closure of facilities." The pandemic is also having a collateral impact on other issues relating to women and children. "Our colleagues on the ground are worried about a general increase in the frequency and danger of sexual and gender-based violence due to Covid-19 measures, domestic violence, forced marriages, child exploitation, dropping out of school, and other factors," Martine Pochon explains.
Global action across various sectors
How can FGM be eliminated? Local communities, experts and the international community are focusing on global, inclusive, long-term actions spanning different sectors, as well as legal reforms and national and multilateral policy. FGM is a social norm, which means that decisions to abandon it depend on several factors.
Switzerland is committed to the global fight against sexual and gender-based violence, and has made the prevention of such violence a priority of its foreign policy. Switzerland works actively with its local, national and international partners to raise awareness and protect local populations against sexual and gender-based violence. In its priority regions, it is developing and supporting various international programmes to educate and empower women, improve global health and boost economic development so that men and women can enjoy the same rights and live under the same conditions. Combating FGM is a feature of various programmes relating to public health and the fight against sexual and gender-based violence.