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UNFPA estimates that over 2 million additional cases of FGM that could have been averted will occur in the next decade due to COVID-19 related programme disruptions [1]. Nonetheless, national, regional and global actions to address the burgeoning COVID health crisis have led to shifts in focus and funding, with negative repercussions for progress in the FGM field. School and business closures and lockdown measures to limit movement have increased the vulnerabilities of women and girls, especially in marginalised communities with limited access to services. As the crisis has grown and evolved, its negative consequences for countries’ economic and social health have placed a spotlight on the importance of ensuring that increasingly limited resources are invested in programmes that we know can have an impact. The intense and immediate disruptions that the pandemic has engendered within households and communities re-emphasise the need to rapidly assess changes as they occur, such that programmes can adapt their approaches in direct response to these ongoing shifts.

In this unique and rapidly changing context, a number of pertinent questions for those working to End FGM arise: How can we understand and address sociocultural, gender, and behavioral norm change quickly and effectively? How can we rapidly assess where and how change is happening? What tools, methods and capacities are necessary for gathering timely, relevant data and evidence that can accurately inform programmes on where to steer their efforts? And, finally, how do we ensure that the evidence generated informs investment in impactful programs? With funding from FCDO, our two interconnected consortia (the ‘Technical Support’ and ‘Data and Measurement’ components of the Support to the Africa Led Movement to End FGM programme) are working closely together to address these questions, and, by so doing, achieve a significant reduction in the practice of FGM by 2025.

As we commemorate the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, our two consortia (and other stakeholders committed to applied research to further understanding of what works best to end FGM and other forms of VAWG) are reminded, once again, of the importance of data. Our conversations with activists and civil society actors on the ground in Kenya as part of the FCDO’s programme to support the Africa Led Movement to end FGM consistently suggest that rates of FGM, child marriage and other forms of sexual and domestic abuse have increased. The devastating implication that decades of progress to create enabling environments for women and girls to flourish have been reversed is heartbreaking. These insights, though, without the data to evidence them, are all too easy to ignore. It is our role as researchers to direct our technical and scientific know-how towards the design and implementation of appropriate data collection instruments. Quantitative data are vital to generate the numbers to document prevalence levels and changes in patterns of behavior. Qualitative data are needed to seek in-depth analysis into the root causes of VAWG and to bring clear direction on why particular interventions work best to address it.

From our perspective, data strengthens the voices of change agents on the ground. In supporting the Africa Led Movement, it is our role to provide ethical and sensitive research to support processes of change. Data allows us to create platforms upon which individual stories and collective experiences can be projected outwards in order to bring visibility to the most vulnerable and marginalised. Data allows those who are systematically silenced in their everyday lives – girls and women – to be heard and in a way that means they cannot be ignored. Data carries the power to make Governments and global donors uncomfortable. It is hard to ignore with moral conscious the shocking statistical estimates on prevalence presented at the start of this blog. It is also hard to ignore the voices of girls and young women who fear a future consisting of multiple forms of violence – from FGM, to being forced and sold into marriages they don’t want, and to being rendered vulnerable to various forms of intimate partner abuse, potentially for the rest of their lives.

Data, though, is not merely about pressuring or shaming governments and donors into resourcing an end to VAWG; it also carries the potential to be empowering. For a girl in a village in Narok or Isiolo County, Kenya (where our programmes will shortly be working), relaying her story and also her hopes and dreams can be experienced as part of a process of change that she is in control of. Acknowledging and sharing her voice is a first, but fundamental, stage. As researchers, it is our responsibility to ensure her voice is heard loudly and by as many as possible.

As researchers, it is also important that, whenever possible, we hear her voice multiple times, across time and space, in order to capture both the challenges and the progress. In embracing adaptive programming, the consortia behind the Support to the Africa Led Movement are doing just that: using the 5-year duration of our respective programmes to: continually listen to girls and those who work with them to end FGM; document their voices; examine what we are learning from these voices; and adapt our programmes as needed – course-correcting when our data tell us that we are missing the mark;  strengthening what is working, as borne out by the data; and sharing these learnings with practitioners and activists as ammunition for strengthening their messaging and programmes. Adaptive programming and the data to support it are all the more important in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and limited funding: targeting the right stakeholders (including girls) and implementing the right interventions in the right ways (ensuring actual value for money) are critical. The 16 Days serve as a reminder of these and other researcher responsibilities to the FGM field – and of the fact that, regardless of the barriers, at-risk and affected girls cannot wait.

Written by Tamsin Bradley, Chi-Chi Undie, Esther Lwanga, Jane Meme

Author information:

Tamsin Bradley, The Africa Led Movement Technical Support Programme (University of Portsmouth);

Chi-Chi Undie, The Africa Led Movement Data and Measurement Programme (the FGM Data Hub, Population Council);

Esther Lwanga, The Africa Led Movement Data and Measurement Programme (the FGM Data Hub, Population Council);

Jane Meme, The Africa Led Movement Technical Support Programme (University of Portsmouth);

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