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COVID-19 threatens to reverse gains

-UNFPA warns

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The United Nations Population Fund or UNFPA has released the State of World Population 2020 report with a warning that while progress has been made in ending some harmful practices against girls worldwide, the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to reverse such gains. The report published Tuesday in New York, says a recent analysis revealed that if services and programmes remain shuttered for the next six months, an additional 13 million girls may be forced into marriage and an additional two million subjected to female genital mutilation between now and 2030.

“The pandemic both makes our job harder and more urgent as so many more girls are now at risk,” says UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem, vowing, “We will not stop until the rights, choices and bodies of all girls are fully their own.” The report details that every year, millions of girls are subjected to practices that harm them physically and emotionally, with the full knowledge and consent of their families, friends and communities.

It says at least 19 harmful practices, ranging from breast ironing to virginity testing, are considered human rights violations, highlighting three most prevalent ones, including female genital mutilation, child marriage, and extreme bias against daughters in favour of sons.  “Harmful practices against girls cause profound and lasting trauma, robbing them of their right to reach their full potential,” Dr. Kanem explains.

According to UNFPA, this year, an estimated 4.1 million girls will be subjected to female genital mutilation and another 33,000 under age 18 will be forced into marriages, usually to much older men. Also, an extreme preference for sons over daughters in some countries has fueled gender-biased sex selection or extreme neglect that leads to their death as children, resulting in 140 million “missing females.”

However, it notes that some harmful practices are waning in countries where they have been most prevalent. But because of population growth in these countries, the number of girls subjected to them will actually rise in the coming decades, if urgent action is not taken.

Countries that have ratified international treaties such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child have a duty to end the harm, whether it’s inflicted on girls by family members, religious communities, health-care providers, commercial enterprises or state institutions, it says and adds that many have responded with laws, but laws alone are not enough. Decades of experience and research show that bottom-up, grassroots approaches are better at bringing change, the UNFPA report states.

“We must tackle the problem by tackling the root causes, especially gender-biased norms. We must do a better job of supporting communities’ own efforts to understand the toll these practices are taking on girls and the benefits that accrue to the whole of society by stopping them,” Dr. Kanem says.

It also adds that economies and the legal systems that support them must be restructured to guarantee every woman equal opportunities, stressing that changing rules for property inheritance, for example, can eliminate a powerful incentive for families to favour sons over daughters and help to eliminate child marriage.

Ending child marriage and female genital mutilation worldwide is possible within 10 years by scaling up efforts to keep girls in school longer and teach them life skills and to engage men and boys in social change. Investments totaling $3.4 billion a year through 2030 would end these two harmful practices and end the suffering of an estimated 84 million girls, the report shows. Press Release

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