Unicef has warned there may be an additional 2 million cases of female genital mutilation (FGM) over the next decade as a result of the pandemic.
The coronavirus outbreak has forced schools to shut worldwide, with teachers often identifying warning signs a girl may be cut in the near future.
Global programmes that work to stop the mutilation of females have also been disrupted by lockdowns.
Pandemic aside, 4 million girls and women are said to be at risk of the agonising procedure every year.
Read more: Thousands of FGM cases in England in 2019
Unicef is calling on global governments, medical organisations and human rights groups to “unite, fund and act”.
In July, an NHS Digital report revealed 6,590 FGM cases in England were brought to light between April 2019 and March 2020, of whom 475 were known to have endured the procedure at under one-year-old.
Watch: What is FGM?
FGM refers to any procedure that intentionally alters or causes injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.
It is carried out for various cultural, religious and social purposes, with many communities mistakenly believing the procedure prepares a girl for marriage.
It has been illegal in the UK since 1985, with the law strengthened in 2003 to prevent girls leaving the country to undergo FGM abroad.
The extremely painful procedure often leads to constant discomfort, difficulty having sex, infertility, urinary incontinence and self-harm.
“Two million additional cases of female genital mutilation may occur over the next decade as COVID-19 [the disease caused by the coronavirus] shutters schools and disrupts programmes that help protect girls from this harmful practice,” UNICEF’s Henrietta Fore and the United Nations Population Fund’s Dr Natalia Kanem said in a joint statement.
“We must act now to stop this from happening.”
Before the pandemic emerged, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals set the “ambitious commitment” of ending FGM by 2030.
“Far from dampening our ambition, the pandemic has sharpened our resolve to protect the 4 million girls and women who are at risk of female genital mutilation each year,” said Fore and Dr Kanem, on the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation.
The pair are calling on policymakers, civil rights organisations and “agents of change” – like teachers, healthcare workers and religious leaders – to work together to end the practice.
“Men and boys also have a crucial role to play,” said Fore and Dr Kanem.
“Together, let us also amplify the powerful and persuasive voices of survivors who are increasingly leading transformative change in their communities.”
Around $2.4bn (£1.7bn), less than $100 ($72.82) per female, needs to be put forward to reach the UN’s goal, according to Fore and Dr Kanem.
“This is a very small price to pay for preserving a girl’s bodily integrity, her health and her right to say ‘no’ to violation,” they said.
The pair also want global populations to ensure girls have access to education, healthcare and “livelihoods”.
“Let us encourage the leadership skills of adolescent girls and their male peers, and inspire their power to speak out and say ‘enough’ to all forms of violence, including violent assaults on their bodies,” said Fore and Dr Kanem.
“Simply put, if gender equality were a reality, there would be no female genital mutilation.
“We know what works. We tolerate no excuses.
“We have had enough of violence against women and girls. It is time to unite around proven strategies, fund them adequately and act.”
How FGM is carried out and the help available
FGM is often performed by traditional circumcisers or cutters, who do not have any medical training.
Pain relief or antiseptics are not generally used, with the procedure being carried out with knives, scissors, scalpels, razor blades or even pieces of glass.
Many victims have to be forcibly restrained during the ordeal. Some die from blood loss or infections.
In certain cases, surgery called deinfibulation can reopen the vagina by cutting away scar tissue.
Anyone in immediate danger of FGM should call the police on 999.
Anyone who performs FGM in the UK can face up to 14 years in prison. Being found guilty of failing to protect a girl from the procedure can result in up to seven years behind bars.
If you are concerned someone may be at risk, contact the NSPCC helpline on 0800 028 3550 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Parents under pressure to have FGM performed on their daughter should talk to their GP or any healthcare professional for help, or contact the NSPCC helpline.
Watch: Girl, 12, dies in Egypt after FGM