When Margaret heard the family making plans for her genital cutting ceremony last August, the 15-year-old Kenyan schoolgirl knew there was no room for negotiation. Her school in rural, western Kenya had been closed for five months due to the pandemic, and with no certainty when classes would resume, Margaret’s parents decided she should wed. “They wanted me to be cut so I could be married and they would get dowry,” Margaret told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from a temporary foster home in West Pokot county, which borders Uganda. “They didn’t listen when I told them I wanted to continue with my education … so I ran away to a neighbour who took me to a charity worker who helps girls like me.” Margaret, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, is one of the lucky ones. From Kenya, Somalia and Tanzania in the east to Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria in the west, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a surge in reports of girls across Africa undergoing female genital mutilation (FGM), say women’s rights groups. FGM, which involves partial or total removal of the female genitalia, threatens 4 million girls annually. The world has pledged to end the practice by 2030 – an ambitious goal made all the more remote by the new coronavirus. For the pandemic has created a perfect storm for proponents of cutting: vulnerable girls stuck at home without teachers’ protection, anti-FGM groups grounded by lockdown and hard-pressed health services diverted to COVID-19. Shutdown has also driven poverty higher, said campaigners, so families perform FGM hoping to marry their daughters off to ease the financial burden at home or gain a dowry. Africa’s confirmed coronavirus caseload has reached more than 3.5 million, with almost 100,000 deaths, according to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Health experts say a lack of testing and reliable data from many African nations means the true figures may be far higher. “Anecdotal evidence, including various reports from police and activists, indicate that in some communities there has been an increase, including girls being subject to FGM en masse,” said Flavia Mwangovya, who leads the anti-FGM programme at charity Equality Now. The pandemic, she said, spawned “a fertile environment for FGM to proliferate”, with the United Nations Population Fund(UNFPA) predicting an extra 2 million girls will be cut in the next decade…more