Building a Critical Mass: Digital engagement for the elimination of Female Genital Mutilation during COVID-19

As digital engagement was scaled up to mitigate girls’ risk of FGM and continue community-based initiatives during COVID-19, UNICEF organised a webinar with key actors to discuss their experiences of using digital tools to shift social norms and build girls’ agency. The blog below summarises the webinar.

COVID-19 has presented significant challenges for the elimination of female genital mutilation (FGM). In Burkina Faso, Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, Somalia, and Sudan, reports show that school closures, social isolation, limited mobility, and reduced law enforcement and frontline service providers increase girls’ risk of undergoing FGM. Social distancing has triggered an accelerated shift to digital technologies as people increasingly rely on technology for access to services, information, education, social networks, and livelihoods. Thus, scaling up digital engagement was identified as a way to mitigate girls’ risk of FGM and continue community-based initiatives in the absence of in-person contact for preventing harmful practices.

Innovative projects from India, Nigeria, Africa, and Egypt

Erika Houghtaling (USAID) presented research conducted under a new project, “Game of Choice, Not Chance”. This is a mobile gaming platform targeting adolescents ages 15 to 19 in the Hindi-belt of India. By combining an interactive story-based video game, reproductive health education e-learning tools, and portal features that link players to health products and services in real time, the project looks to empower girls by building agency and changing social norms. The research was conducted by the Girl Effect’s Technology Enabled Girls Ambassadors, using a mobile, peer-to-peer research app.

U-Report is a free open-source mobile messaging programme that gives youth and their communities a voice on issues that matter to them. With 3.4 million users, UNICEF Nigeria uses this data to develop social media campaigns targeting and mobilizing a youth movement. During the COVID-19 crisis, UNICEF Nigeria used #endcuttinggirls to support social media advocacy to end FGM, reaching over a quarter of a million users. They also used sponsored ads to encourage people to act on issues related to child protection, including a campaign to end violence against girls which reached 1.1 million users. UNICEF Nigeria is piloting a digital youth marketplace called “Yoma Africa”, which provides access to skills development opportunities and incentivizes youth social action by offering rewards. While these are innovative models for digital engagement, Minu Limbu highlighted that the issue of inequitable access to digital technologies remains, as communities with the highest number of marginalized and vulnerable children in Nigeria often have less connectivity.

In Nigeria, places where children are more deprived are also the areas with little or no connectivity. (Map Source: NCDC 2020, BBC 2019, GSMA 2018)

Dr. Faith Mwangi-Powell (Girls Not Brides) spoke about digital engagement to stop FGM and child marriage. The Girl Generation aimed to strengthen the Africa-led movement to catalyze social norm change and eliminate FGM using digital technology as a means of collaboration and co-creation. As part of this, the “I Will End FGM” campaign was launched across youth networks, which invited young people to share their videos on how they would end FGM. The campaign exceeded all targets, reaching 20 million people via social media and other channels.

UNICEF Egypt presented “Dawwie”, which means “a loud voice with impact” in Arabic. This initiative to empower adolescent girls uses digital engagement to raise awareness about harmful practices and the gendered impacts of COVID-19.

Key takeaways from the webinar

  1. With growing opposition to FGM, digital platforms not only spark critical thinking about harmful practices, but can also support collective action to end FGM.
  2. Co-creation with young people and partners is crucial to ensure context-responsive digital youth engagement.
  3. While digital engagement is showing promising results in shifting social norms and building youth agency, it should be combined with interpersonal, community level interventions.
  4. The evidence base around digital engagement for social norms change is limited. More research and impact evaluations are needed.
  5. Ethics and “do no harm” are essential, including creating a risk mitigation strategy to protect vulnerable youth and address online risks.
  6. Digital engagement has the potential to drive youth participation and civic engagement more than traditional civic spaces, while supporting social change for future generations.

 

An inclusive and digital “new normal”

During the webinar, the issue of the gender digital divide was discussed. A 2018 Vodaphone and Girl Effect global study of girls’ mobile phone access and use found that boys were 1.5 times more likely to own a mobile phone than girls. Poor infrastructure in many countries means half the world’s population does not have access to the internet, with African youth the least connected. According to UNICEF’s 2017 State of the World’s Children, around 60% of African youth are not online, compared to just 4% in Europe.

As the global community adapts to the COVID-19 “new normal,” containment policies are hastening the digital transition. Accelerating efforts to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 5.3 on the elimination of harmful practices (including FGM), requires innovative and cost-effective solutions to access communities and foster social cohesion in the face of the pandemic. Digital engagement is one such solution, but we must ensure that no one is left behind in the new digital world.

 

Watch the recording, see the webinar highlights, and view the presentations.

Nankali Maksud is a Senior Advisor in Child Protection at UNICEF and the Global Coordinator of the UNFPA-UNICEF Global Programme to End Child Marriage. Stephanie Baric is a Consultant with the Prevention of the Harmful Practices in Child Protection at UNICEF.

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