Somalia's coronavirus lockdown has led to a huge increase in female genital mutilation (FGM), with circumcisers going door to door offering to cut girls stuck at home during the pandemic, a charity said on Monday.
Plan International said the crisis was undermining efforts to eradicate the practice in Somalia, which has the world's highest FGM rate, with about 98% of women having been cut.
"We've seen a massive increase in recent weeks," said Sadia Allin, Plan International's head of mission in Somalia. "We want the government to ensure FGM is included in all COVID responses."
She told the Thomson Reuters Foundation nurses across the country had also reported a surge in requests from parents wanting them to carry out FGM on their daughters while they were off school because of the lockdown.
FGM, which affects 200 million girls and women globally, involves the partial or total removal of the external genitalia. In Somalia the vaginal opening is also often sewn up - a practice called infibulation.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has warned that the pandemic could lead to an extra two million girls worldwide being cut in the next decade as the crisis stymies global efforts to end the practice.
Taking advantage of lockdown
Allin said families in Somalia were taking advantage of school closures to carry out FGM so that the girls had time to recover from the ritual, which can take weeks.
The economic downturn caused by coronavirus has also spurred cutters to tout for more business, she said.
"The cutters have been knocking on doors, including mine, asking if there are young girls they can cut. I was so shocked," said Allin, who has two daughters aged five and nine.
She said restrictions on movement during the lockdown were making it harder to raise awareness of the dangers of FGM in communities.
"FGM is one of the most extreme manifestations of violence against girls and women," said Allin, who has been cut herself.
"It's a lifetime torture for girls. The pain continues ... until the girl goes to the grave. It impacts her education, ambition ... everything."
290,000 girls cut in 2020
The UNFPA, which estimates 290,000 girls will be cut in Somalia in 2020, said the spike was also linked to Ramadan, which is a traditional time for girls to be cut.
UNFPA Somalia representative Anders Thomsen said the pandemic was shifting world attention and funding away from combatting FGM.
But he said there were also grounds for optimism, pointing to the recent criminalisation of FGM in neighbouring Sudan.
"There are glimmers of hope and we do hope and believe that may rub off on Somalia, which I would call ground zero for FGM," he said.
New data also shows families are beginning to switch to less severe forms of FGM with 46% of 15 to 19-year-olds having been infibulated compared to more than 80% of their mothers.