Q&A: UNFPA chief on harmful practices against girls during the pandemic

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A girl looks through a microscope at an elementary school in Harla, Dire Dawa region, Ethiopia. Photo by: UNICEF Ethiopia / CC BY-NC-ND

MANILA — Harmful practices against women and girls, such as child marriage, remain contentious issues in many parts of the world, and the pandemic is exacerbating that reality as some families are forced to accept such practices for social and economic reasons.

Data is scarce on how the pandemic is affecting the exercise of harmful practices. Natalia Kanem, executive director at the United Nations Population Fund, told Devex that the agency has been getting anecdotal evidence of people rushing to marry off their daughters. The act can be seen to ease the economic burden on households and prevent shame on the family if girls get pregnant outside of marriage.

Kanem said there may also be a link between gender-based coercion of girls into sexual activity and lockdowns.

“We are drawing analogies, and asking questions, and collecting data based on what we saw during Ebola — when there was a mushrooming of teen pregnancy — and some of this was due to the so-called lockdown situation in that time,” she said.

Harmful practices against women and girls continue today despite decades of campaigns and pushbacks.

Girls below 18 years of age continue to be forced into early marriages, with 33,000 child marriages estimated to take place every day globally. About 140 million women and girls are missing today because of families’ strong preference for sons over daughters. In addition, an estimated 4.1 million girls are expected to undergo female genital mutilation this year, according to UNFPA’s latest “State of the World Population 2020” report, launched June 30.

Opinion: Ending FGM by 2030 will be led by women

Female genital mutilation is now seen as an urgent global issue, but funding levels to end it is minuscule and political will is inconsistent. We need all governments to ban it, writes Nimco Ali, CEO at The Five Foundation.

“The rates of these harmful practices are slowing, but when you consider that population growth in the world is actually increasing, then unfortunately we're just running to keep pace in one place,” Kanem said.

The numbers are projected to rise if interventions are delayed because of COVID-19. A modeling analysis done by UNFPA and partners in April projected that a one-year delay in interventions to end child marriage would lead to 7.4 million more child marriages over the next decade. The pandemic’s economic impact is projected to result in an additional 5.6 million child marriages between now and 2030. A two-year delay in interventions preventing FGM could lead to 2 million more cases within the same time frame.

“Part of the urgency of the world population report that we're presenting today [is] that we can't afford to ignore harm today. That's going to lead to a lifetime of trauma for the girl or the woman involved,” Kanem said.

Devex spoke to Kanem about the agency’s efforts to address harmful practices in the middle of the pandemic and how donors have responded to these issues.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

“Step up, be on the record, defend your daughter, your sister, your mother, the girl next door, from needless suffering.”

— Natalia Kanem, executive director, United Nations Population Fund

One of the most successful strategies to delay child marriage is education. But right now most schools in the world are closed. There is a trend to move learning to online platforms. What does that mean for women and girls who rely on the education system to get themselves out of this predicament?

UNFPA and UNICEF [are] on a joint program for avoiding FGM and child marriage. The importance of the girl having regular contact with school has to be emphasized in two ways.

One of course [is] education, learning. That's part of her fulfilling her potential and growing up to be the best that she can be. But the other point is that school is a point of interaction with other adults who can detect if something is going wrong.

So the sad reality being, that for many children, and the children in developing countries that I'm talking about, the digital platform is nonexistent to begin with. Or it is not a substitute for the socialization that takes place at school. So the worry being that in other situations, once a girl leaves school, the likelihood of her becoming a permanent dropout is relatively high. The gender inequality, the negative attitudes about girls that drive the harmful practices now are compounded and lead to her missing that schooling that would have been protective in so many other ways.

Our rush to cooperate with the secretary general's new briefing on [the socio-economic impact of COVID-19] included the insistence that sexual and reproductive health issues needed to form part of that report, which it does.

One other important measure that was mentioned in the report is the adoption of legislation. But as the report says, laws are not always enough. How are the implementation of laws on child marriage and FGM being overseen during this crisis? And who are ensuring that these laws are followed or who are making governments accountable?

First of all, not every country has legislation in place yet to date. So we still have unfinished business vis-a-vis making both child marriage and FGM not legal on the books.

Now, we're going to talk about implementation, and for son preference, most countries are silent.

Given that COVID disrupts the normal flow of societal expectations and even the judiciary … We feel that communities are the first level of accountability.

If the government says XYZ is supposed to happen, we as UNFPA, with our partners, try to build those alliances on the ground so the parents really understand. It should not be dictated to them. They should actually be given the information that they need to make the best decision for their children — girls and boys for that matter. Now, in terms of the duty to respond to human rights violations, it's the individual, it's the community, it's the government, it's the international community.

I will refer you to conventions like the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the one for the elimination of discrimination against women, CEDAW, [and others]. Those so-called treaty bodies, which operate under the aegis of the U.N. office of the high commissioner for human rights, actually are supposed to go out there and check, and note, and report.

At every level, we need to reinforce that practices that harm women and girls undermine equality for all. But for us, as UNFPA, we really feel that the work on the ground is going to be the most productive. And we do try to feature some success stories in the report.

Like the woman from Indonesia who put down the knife … and stopped FGM. … A young lawyer [in Tanzania] who took her government to court so ... child marriage became [illegal], and now is involved in ensuring implementation [of that law]. These are what give me the inspiration that change has happened, and it must happen, COVID or not. This agenda is part and parcel of human progress.

“You're poor, you're rural, you're an ethnic minority, you name it, you are getting hit harder.”

In your engagement with donors. How are they sort of responding to this call for attention, call for action?

We have had tremendous responses from countries that are steadfast on these issues.

My concern, however, is that because of COVID, the 2030 aim should not be set aside. Part and parcel of succeeding in the fight against COVID is to respect, to protect, to fulfill — that I spoke about earlier. If we have entrenched cultural attitudes and practices that dehumanize and commoditize girls — with the disruptions created by COVID — we're seeing that they're much more at risk for all the things that I mentioned, including trafficking.

When you consider that protection of women, especially those who are in fragile circumstances, is imperative, I frankly am very worried that the additional resources, which OCHA and the humanitarian system are asking for, [are] woefully underfunded when it comes to these issues.

For GBV, for example, which is written into the appeal to donors, only 8% of the budget has been fulfilled today in the humanitarian response plan. And then lastly, donors need to work as part of parliamentarian support, government support in developing countries to ensure that obligations under human rights treaties that require the elimination of FGM and child marriage occurs. This is built into the SDG number 5.

Via YouTube.

You mentioned ... that the goal by the end of this decade is to end harmful practices. Is that goal still achievable?

Should we ask a girl to delay her dream because of a pandemic? The answer is no. So I have tried in the face of everything that's happening to maintain my full confidence and determination that once people put their minds to something, it can happen. And I've seen this. I refer to the eradication of practices that people thought would never happen.

If you were coming up in the Chinese generation of foot binding, that was going to be your fate. If you were coming up at a time when certain types of traditional practices and scarifications and whatever were thought relevant to protect you, you were going to get scarifications … So I actually think that when it comes to women's rights, this is not something to be brokered and negotiated. This is something to be implemented and fulfilled.

So the secretary-general is on record as saying that the 2030 goals must be kept on track. And our response to COVID, which is showing the inequalities that the SDGs were supposed to address to begin with, should factor in that we have a deadline to press against.

Realistically, some of these things do cost money and I'm conceding that, okay, we're not going to have the same type of budget maybe next year that we would have wanted … But a lot of what we're talking about — changing attitudes — is not a monetary thing. It's really the hearts and minds of young people coming up, who are showing us.

I think you would have seen our narrative in the book. Boys are not committed to FGM. They don't uphold this. [But] more than half of them are against it once they understand what the consequences are. And among older and younger people, the trend of abandoning these harmful practices is increasing. So let us not let up, let us not set aside the fight for another day. The fight is for now. It's for today.

What strategies or discussions are happening now between you and your partners? What are you putting together today to avert some of the predictions researchers made [in their modeling analysis]?

We, coming out of the Nairobi summit, asked the world to reinvigorate the promises that were made in Cairo 25 years ago, going on 26 years now. And the proposal that we put on the table was that unkept promises should be fulfilled.

In my conversations with member states, in my conversations with NGOs who have a very important role to play, in my conversations with parliamentarians, the point that I make repeatedly is that the discrimination and harm that these practices cause today is going to have a pernicious effect really over a generation or two — if we do nothing.

Our ask is to end harmful practices by doing a number of things.

[One is] privileging the community. So we are investing in taking the opportunity to partner with whoever's out there. UNFPA has joined religious coalitions. We of course work very well within the health system, but we're also [working] with groups like ILO that are looking at the future of work. These types of employment issues are very, very important to young people all around the developing world today.

The other ask that we are making is that men step up, be on the record, defend your daughter, your sister, your mother, the girl next door, from needless suffering that the world has long known how to prevent, and yet we have not put into effect.

I believe that progress has been unacceptably slow. And when you really look at it, and we see this with COVID, the burdens of death and disease are disproportionately borne by those people who are most marginalized.

You're poor, you're rural, you're an ethnic minority, you name it, you are getting hit harder. And that shows the underlying inequality, a lot of which can also be gender inequality, must be faced head-on.

About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.