The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has created a global and gendered crisis that is compounding existing inequalities and disproportionately affecting girls and women. Emerging evidence from the COVID-19 crisis in 2020 shows school closures, disruptions in essential services and rising poverty contributed to girls’ increased risk of female genital mutilation (FGM). School closures limited the monitoring and reporting of cases of FGM. Rising household monetary poverty may have contributed to families adopting negative coping mechanisms, including having girls undergo FGM as a precursor to marriage to reduce household costs. A report from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates 2 million additional cases of FGM by 2030 due to the pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic also caused an unprecedented disruption in girls’ education. School closures resulted in an increase in unpaid care work for girls, limiting their availability for learning. The gender digital divide affected girls’ ability to access remote learning. The Malala Fund estimates that approximately 20 million more secondary school-age girls may remain out of school even after the crisis has passed. In Kenya, as schools reopened in January 2021, re-enrolment overall was quite high; however, older adolescent girls (15–19 years) were the least likely to return, with 16 per cent of girls in this age group not returning to school, compared to 8 per cent of their male counterparts. This would add to the 129 million girls who were out of school prior to the pandemic.
Although the links between education and FGM are under-researched, girls’ education appears to be a protective factor in reducing FGM prevalence. As a result, girls’ risk of dropping out of school may contribute to an increase in risk of FGM for current and future generations of girls.