Sadia Allin, country director for Plan International, poses for a photograph at her office in Hargeisa, Somaliland, a semi-autonomous breakaway region of Somalia, Monday, Feb. 7, 2022. Officials and health workers say cases of female genital mutilation increased during the pandemic.   (AP Photo/Brian Inganga)

Incidents of female genital mutilation have risen alarmingly in Somaliland during the pandemic, according to activists and officials interviewed by the AP. One reason: The practice provides income for FGM practitioners, known as “cutters,” who travel door-to-door offering their services. One cutter continues her work despite acknowledging—thanks to decades of public education and advocacy efforts—that there are no medical reasons for a practice that can cause serious lifelong medical and reproductive harm, if not death. It remains legal in Somaliland, a semi-autonomous breakaway region of Somalia.

Advocates say pandemic lockdowns kept girls out of school, making them vulnerable to cutters. Also, economic pressures led impoverished parents to give their daughters in marriage, for which FGM is a cultural expectation. Somaliland already had the highest rate of FGM in the world before the pandemic, with 98% of girls undergoing it between ages 5 and 11. The majority experience the most severe kind, being sewn up until marriage, although less severe methods exist. Before COVID-19, activists said they were gaining momentum toward a law barring FGM for good, but progress has never been easy.
Tensions were evident last month, when leaders gathered for the UN-sponsored International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM. Former first lady Edna Adan Ismail gave a fiery speech in favor of banning the practice. But the religious affairs minister, Abdirizak Hussein Ali Albani, merely acknowledged the most severe consequences of FGM while suggesting less severe methods should remain optional. His comments reflected the thinking of many in Somaliland’s powerful religious community.

With the pandemic subsiding, activists hope to recapture their momentum, but another challenge remains: every lawmaker in Somaliland is a man. Even a hard-won law will face certain cultural backlash. Ismail offered a blunt assessment: “Whatever women say … at the end of the day there’s some imam who says, ‘Oh, this is wrong.’ Those few words wipe out all the efforts that have been done.” (Read more Somaliland stories.)