From: Alice Taylor
Pandemic Raises Risks of FGM, Child Marriage, and Son Preference Worldwide

The global COVID-19 pandemic has heightened the risk of child marriage, female genital mutilation, and son preference practices, according to the UNFPAs 2020 report entitled “Against My Will: Defying the Practices that Harm Women and Girls and Undermine Equality”.

Each day, hundreds of thousands of women and girls are physically or psychologically harmed with the full knowledge, consent, and even support of their families, friends and communities. These practices violate girls human rights, bodily autonomy, and reinforce harmful gender stereotypes and inequalities.

Female genital mutilation (FGM) takes place on every continent and affects over 200 million women and girls. It includes the partial or total removal of external female genitalia and is usually carried out on girls between the ages of birth and 15 years old. 

It is carried out in various cultures under the misguided belief that it improves fertility, enhances sexual pleasure for men, and suppresses female sexuality. It is generally performed to uphold a girl’s purity, honour, and cleanliness and to make her more marriageable in the eyes of the community.

In Albania, FGM is covered by the Instanbul Convention of which the country is a signatory to, but there has been no effort to specify it in local law. There is also no information or data on its prevalence in-country.

The UNFPA has estimated that 600 million girls and women alive today were married as children. They also state that around 33,000 such ‘ceremonies’ happen each day, despite being increasingly banned. 

It often occurs in situations where parents want to secure their economic futures or because they consider their daughter an economic commodity and a way of settling debt. Some also mistakenly believe that it will protect their daughters from sexual and other kinds of violence by entrusting her wellbeing to her husband’s family. They often do not consider that the marriage and subsequent relationship with the ‘husband’ is also a sexual assault.

While Albania has a strong legislative framework designed to tackle child marriage, research has shown that the laws are not consistently or effectively implemented. Official data from 2017 indicated that 16.9% of marriages took place involving a female under the age of 19. Only 0.5% involved a male under the same age. 

Son preference is where couples will go to great lengths to avoid having a daughter, instead preferring a son. If they do have a girl, they will often fail to care for the health and wellbeing of the daughter. It is estimated that more than 140,000 females are currently missing as a consequence of son preference practices.

Ways to deal with the birth of a girl include coerced or forced abortions, abandonment or exclusion of women that birth girls, poorer nutrition, inadequate education, and lack of medical care.

In 2012, the UNFPA reported on sex imbalances in Albania. It noted a rapid spread of prenatal sex selection, characterised by a patriarchal family system organised along male patriline. Girls, the UNFPA said, are seen as transient members of the family as they will leave when they get married. They found that families are unwilling to bear repeatedly unwanted girls for the sake of having a son so gender-selective abortions prevail. 

Their research confirmed that son preference is a distinctive feature of Albanian demographics and there are higher infant mortality rates among girls.

While little data has been collected during the pandemic, the UNFPA believes that the exercising of harmful practices against women and girls will have increased. This is due to a number of factors such as programmes designed to protect children from the marriage and genital mutilation are delayed and economic disruptions in the family will have increased the vulnerability of girls and women.

The UNFPA said it has received some reports of increases in FGM and child marriage in some communities but more research needs to be done. They added that if the pandemic causes a two-year delay in FGM prevention programmes, some 2 million FGM cases could occur over the next ten years that could have been prevented. 

In terms of child marriage, the current economic downturn is projected to result in some 5.6 million child marriages in the next decade. This combined with the 7.4 million predicted as a result of delays to anti-child marriage programmes, results in over 13 million child marriages taking place that could have been prevented.