As we watch uncertainty grow in our daily lives, the one thing we can be sure about is that the pandemic will disproportionately affect those women and girls already living in poverty and denied their rights on the African continent.
Decades of neglect and low levels of economic prosperity has meant that the health systems of most sub-Saharan African countries will have no chance of dealing with the kind of numbers that Europe, Asia and the US have had to cope with. There is no possibility either of scaling up preventative measures such as handwashing on a continent where millions do not have access to water — or, when they do, it’s at a communal pump, a potential breeding ground for viruses.
Although the number of confirmed cases has been steadily increasing to nearly 30,000 Covid-19 has thankfully not yet taken hold to the same devastating extent in much of the sub-Saharan region. We should also keep in mind, though, that countries such as Sierra Leone, which has only one ventilator for a population of 7.5 million, could be devastated by any significant increase from what is now a relatively manageable level of just over 50 confirmed cases.
Of course, nobody knows what is going to happen there in the coming weeks. I get it — when our families and livelihoods are at risk, it’s hard to think about anything apart from what is happening in our own communities. But those around the world, especially women and girls in Africa, are also part of the community many of us in the UK are connected to and care about.
The success of women in the developing world is our success and it’s shameful that they are being left behind more than ever before. At times like these international funding tends to be reduced rather than increased. Several large aid organisations and governments have also recently sent their African representatives back to the UK. This has left a massive gap behind, where inequalities not only continue but actually become more entrenched. The needs of women and girls at risk of female genital mutilation (FGM) and other abuses do not decrease because of a new virus. They actually increase.
As a Somaliland-born survivor of FGM, I know that girls like me in Kenya, Somaliland — or any of the sub-Saharan countries where it is prevalent — will be at extreme risk at times like these. Unicef estimates that 68 million girls are likely to be at risk of FGM in the next decade, but if we increase prosperity now there is no need for this to be the case. From another perspective, the best way to give these countries a decent chance of preventing the spread of pandemics through sustainable livelihoods and strengthening healthcare systems and responses is to change the structure of how we deliver international aid.
In its 2019 Global Prosperity Index of 167 countries the Legatum Institute found that not a single African country heavily affected by FGM was in the top 100. There is growing evidence that gender inequality and the prosperity of nations are closely linked, yet bilaterals and foundations do not seem to fund accordingly and often view the economic empowerment of women and violence against women as two isolated issues.
Last year I co-founded The Five Foundation, The Global Partnership to End FGM, to prioritise this issue and to increase funding for African women on the frontlines. Our strategy is based on ending this and other forms of violence against women and girls through increasing women’s economic empowerment and lifting communities, and ultimately countries, out of poverty. I talk to donors all the time about the need to see that this is the best and most sustainable way of solving the complex issues that they have often shied away from.
Over the last few years I have travelled across the continent and seen first-hand the impact giving women access to funding to start their own business has had on their communities. In The Gambia, Jaha Dukureh, founder of Safe Hands for Girls, showed me how supporting a rural women’s organisation there meant that they could start a farming co-operative. Nearly a hundred (mostly widows) now farm their own land, taking their crops to their local village to make a living. These women are now able to send their children to school, shop locally and access healthcare. FGM and “child marriage” have decreased significantly. In Kenya, a table top lending project called Joyful Women, started ten years ago by Rachel Ruto, the vice-president’s wife, has helped to lift 250,000 women out of poverty. Women have had daughters who are free of FGM, educated and free to marry when they want.
Instead of relying on the colonial idea of benefactor and recipient it is my hope that the UK government and foundations will truly partner with and trust African women, the real agents of change in their localities. They are the only ones who can lift themselves and their communities out of poverty. They know how to end violence against women where they are, but they also know how to ensure a prosperous, healthier and more sustainable future for themselves and the societies they live in.
I am tired of hearing about my sisters being mutilated as babies so they can be sold for livestock, taken out of school to become some old man’s second wife and then dying during childbirth. Although little to no funding has been available, the way we have invested in the issue to date has been inefficient too. Ideas such as community declarations of abandonment have often come from the outside, with minimal support for grassroots activists or women-led enterprises. This is why countries such as Senegal, which have received more than most to end FGM, have not managed to reduce levels.
This pandemic is a wake-up call for how the UK and other Western governments need to support local solutions to global problems instead of imposing ideas from the outside. Let’s make this a decade for African women and get behind them to solve their own country’s problems, end violence against women and girls, and build lasting prosperity and resilience against this pandemic and future crises.
Somali-born survivor of FGM, Nimco Ali for The Times.
Nimco Ali is a British Somali feminist and social activist. She is the chief executive of The Five Foundation, The Global Partnership To End FGM.