COVID-19 has upended the lives of children and families across the globe and is impacting efforts to end child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM). Actions taken to contain the spread of the pandemic – such as school closures and movement restrictions – are disrupting children’s routines and their support systems.
Hundreds of millions of children and adolescents will likely face increasing threats to their safety and well-being, including gender-based violence (GBV), exploitation, abuse and neglect, social exclusion, and/or separation from caregivers and friends. We know from the Ebola outbreaks and from other public health crises that adolescent girls are disproportionally affected by these emergencies. Efforts to stop the Ebola epidemics led to school closures and a loss of education; a decrease in access to reproductive health information and services; a loss of livelihoods and a contraction of social
support networks. These undermine strategies to end FGM and child marriage, and threaten the progress that has been made over the past decade.
The COVID-19 response can draw important lessons from the Ebola epidemics in West Africa and the Democratic Republic of the Congo
SOCIAL DISTANCING is reducing the provision of social services (health, education and protection) and limiting community gatherings and face-to-face interactions in a bid to slow the spread of the epidemic. But these are key tools in efforts to end child marriage and FGM.
NON-BIOMEDICAL EXPLANATIONS of disease may stigmatize vulnerable groups and lead to the denial of services and care, and to violence against marginalized groups, including witchcraft accusations against children and women
EPIDEMICS ARE DISRUPTORS and can be harnessed for positive social change. During the Ebola crisis, FGM was interrupted in Guinea and Sierra Leone. While FGM resumed after the end of the epidemic, a public health crisis and the disruption it causes could potentially be leveraged to advocate for an end to harmful practices.
NOT ALL HARMFUL PRACTICES HAVE THE SAME EFFECTS. While FGM declined – even if only temporarily – teenage pregnancies increased in Sierra Leone during the Ebola crisis. This shows that the drivers and inhibitors of FGM and child marriage differ from each other and require issue-specific strategies.
NEW NETWORKS, such as those generated during the Ebola outbreaks, created systems of cooperation that can be reactivated. The lessons learned in communities about epidemic response make them more resilient to other public health crises.
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