Osler: Diversity Disclosure Practices – Diversity and leadership at Canadian public companies

Useful comprehensive and detailed report, looking at representation at the board and executive levels, for Canada’s largest publicly trade companies, including sector breakdowns.

Previous reports have only looked at women’s representation, the current report includes all four employment equity groups. Summary below, along with tables for visible minorities, Indigenous peoples and persons with disabilities:

Women now hold over 21.5% of board seats among TSX-listed companies disclosing the number of women on their boards, an increase of almost 3% compared to 2019. The rate at which women are being appointed to fill newly created or vacated board seats declined slightly to 35%, compared to 36.4% in 2019. As in past years, Canada’s larger companies continue to lead the way as women hold 31.5% of board positions among the S&P/ TSX 60 companies and 28.3% of board positions among the 221 companies included in the S&P/TSX Composite Index. All-male boards continue to wither away, representing only 18.5% of the TSX-listed companies.

We anticipate that certain of our 2020 full-year results, including the percentage of board seats held by women, will be approximately 1% lower than our 2020 mid-year results as a significant number of issuers which historically have had below average diversity results took advantage of permitted extensions of normal deadlines to file their disclosure after our July 31, 2020 cut-off for our mid-year results.

The number of TSX-listed companies with written board diversity policies increased to 64.7% and approximately 97% of the time those policies included a specific focus on women on the board. This year we noticed a significant increase in companies disclosing that their board policy also considers other diversity characteristics – the most common of which was ethnicity/race, which was identified approximately 57.5% of the time.

However, we continue to see no progress being made at the executive officer level. The proportion of women executive officers has remained largely unchanged since 2015, and under 10% of TSX-listed companies have targets for women executive officers.

Our review of diversity disclosure by CBCA companies under the new CBCA requirements shows results on the representation of women that are comparable to those reported for TSX-listed issuers under the new CBCA requirements. However, there is a marked absence of directors from other diversity groups. Only 5.5% of the 217 disclosing CBCA company directors are visible minorities. And among the 2,023 board positions of the 270 CBCA companies that provided full or partial disclosure on their practices before July 31, 2020, there were only 7 positions held by Aboriginal peoples and only 6 positions held by persons with disabilities.

The key data tables:

Source: https://www.osler.com/osler/media/Osler/reports/corporate-governance/Diversity-and-Leadership-in-Corporate-Canada-2020.pdf

Laurentian Bank CEO says diversity targets part of financial package for bank leaders

Money talks:

Laurentian Bank of Canada chief executive Rania Llewellyn says that early in her career, she was told by a manager that he was looking for a man to fill a job she was vying for.

“I remember, there was a vacant job. I was ready to go for it. I was trained,” said Llewellyn at a webcast event on Monday at The Empire Club of Canada, in a celebration of International Women’s Day.

“And he said, ‘I’m looking for a man and I’m looking for someone who’s older.’ And this was going to be my new boss. Right? So, I would say there’s lots of those little stories across along the way.”

Llewellyn’s speech came on the heels of a report from DBRS Morningstar, which found that the six largest Canadian banks score better than the Australian and U.S. bank averages on attracting, retaining and developing women into senior leadership positions.

But DBRS Morningstar also says BMO, Scotiabank, CIBC, National Bank, RBC and TD are on average falling behind the three large Australian banks on the issue of gender pay equity.

Llewellyn, who in October became the first woman to lead a major Canadian bank, said diversity and inclusion targets should be written into the financial packages that go to the board, just as there are financial targets for leaders at the bank.

Llewellyn said companies setting such targets should focus not only on recruiting diverse talent, but also on retaining women as they move up the ranks.

“That’s one thing I introduced at Laurentian. All of my leaders have targets on their scorecards, in terms of diversity targets. But more importantly, I’ve actually included in our financial package that goes to the board,” Llewellyn said.

Linda Seymour, chief executive at HSBC Bank Canada, also said on Monday that International Women’s Day had her “reflecting on what it took to get here.”

“I was recently asked if I had to fight to break through the glass ceiling. It wasn’t that I had to fight harder than my male colleagues,” Seymour wrote in a LinkedIn post. “It was that I had to navigate harder – to make sure I was heard, to constantly network, to demonstrate when I was not only as qualified, but more qualified than my male colleagues.”

Seymour wrote that she sees having a gender-balanced board and executive committee at HSBC Bank Canada as a business advantage, but called on leaders to generally be more open to being challenged by employees on diversity and inclusion progress.

The report from DBRS Morningstar said that the gender wage gap has been consistent for about 20 years for workers between 25 to 54 in finance, insurance, real estate, rental and leasing. But the report said that disruptions to the labour force caused by the COVID-19 pandemic may be behind a slight widening of the gap recently. Indeed, across industries, the female participation rate in Canada’s labour force fell during the pandemic, the report said.

Llewellyn said child-care infrastructure, flexible work arrangements in terms of time and hours, upskilling programs and early childhood financial literacy programs will be key to helping women recover from the effects of the pandemic.

“I think it’s systemic throughout our culture as well. I have a daughter and it starts very early on, in terms of some of these systemic biases in the system,” she said. “Words matter and how people behave and how we model is absolutely important.”

Source: Laurentian Bank CEO says diversity targets part of financial package for bank leaders

Gender Results Framework: Data table on gender representation in federal leadership roles

Text – Selected

Underwhelming. Overly general, no intersectionality data but will save some time for those like me who track this stuff. More interesting would be broader examination of federal leadership roles beyond MPs:

Statistics Canada’s Centre for Gender, Diversity and Inclusion Statistics has released a new data table on gender representation in federal government leadership roles. This information will be used by the Gender Results Framework, a whole-of-government tool designed to track gender equality in Canada.

Using open data from the House of Commons of Canada, the Centre has produced a table that shows the gender distribution of members of Parliament and of ministers appointed to the federal Cabinet. This information could be used to track, over time, gender representation in elected office and appointments to ministerial positions in the federal government.

Open data refer to structured data that are machine-readable and freely shared, used and built on without restrictions. The data included in this table are sourced from the House of Commons of Canada and are licensed under the Open Government Licence – Canada.

These new data will soon be housed on the Gender, Diversity and Inclusion Statistics Hub.

Personally, find employment equity public service, governor-in-council, judicial and senate appointments more interesting and relevant than this general dataset.

Hopefully StatsCan’s new hub will become more relevant over time and broaden its reach in cooperation with other agencies such as TBS, PSC and PCO.

Source: https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/210308/dq210308f-eng.htm?CMP=mstatcan

Women at risk of long-term work disruption as pandemic alters jobs market, RBC warns [also visible minorities and immigrants]

More on the “she-cession” and “imm-cession:”

Women in Canada are at risk of prolonged unemployment as the COVID-19 pandemic accelerates structural changes to the job market, RBC Economics warned Thursday.

The health crisis has dealt uneven blows to the labour market – and often, to the greater detriment of women. There’s been a substantial increase in the number of women who are jobless for six-plus months, while many have dropped out of the labour force entirely.

At the same time, the pandemic is forcing many companies to adopt new technologies sooner than planned, while some consumer spending habits may have shifted permanently, the RBC report said. That could spell trouble for jobs at risk of automation, and in particular, for the women who staff the service industries most affected by health restrictions.

“As we reopen, the economy is changing,” Dawn Desjardins, deputy chief economist at Royal Bank of Canada and one of the report’s authors, said in an interview. “We need all hands on deck … in trying to get people re-engaged” in the labour market.

Using data from Statistics Canada, RBC pointed to a handful of indicators where women are lagging, and where the recovery process could prove challenging.

For instance, employment for women earning less than $800 weekly was down nearly 30 per cent from February, 2020, while for men it fell 24 per cent. Women have also sustained roughly two-thirds of the job losses in the struggling hospitality sector.

As well, nearly 100,000 women aged 20-plus have dropped out of the labour force – meaning they aren’t working or searching for a job – while fewer than 10,000 men have done so. Young and racialized women, female immigrants and mothers are among those who have suffered outsized work disruptions.

“The longer these women are out of the labour force, the greater the risk of skills erosion, which could potentially hamper their ability to get rehired or to transition to different roles as the economy evolves,” the report said.

Ms. Desjardins and economist Carrie Freestone wrote that accessible and targeted training is needed to help displaced workers, and that digital skills are crucial.

Such efforts could be unveiled in the federal government’s spring budget. Ottawa has said it will spend up to $100-billion over three years in fiscal stimulus, to help with the recovery process. And in a mandate letter sent to Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough in January, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called for “the largest investment in Canadian history in training for workers.”

Much like RBC, the Bank of Canada has flagged concerns over structural changes to the job market. In a recent speech, Governor Tiff Macklem said automation helps companies become more productive and creates new work opportunities. But the pandemic has sped up the transformation, and that comes with collateral damage.

“Some of the jobs that have been lost during the pandemic will not return,” Mr. Macklem said. “Many low-wage jobs have a high potential of being automated. And some jobs that are disproportionally held by women and youth, such as retail salesperson and cashier, are also the kinds of jobs where the pandemic has accelerated structural change.”

The RBC report also called for “more options” in affordable child care. “But it’s no solution if [low-earning mothers] don’t have jobs to return to.”

Ultimately, Ms. Desjardins said Canada should be working toward women participating in the labour force at the same rates as men. It’s a gap that predates the pandemic, but if closed would result in a much larger and dynamic economy.

“The idea of women participating at the same level as men in the labour market, and what that can add to our economy – it just makes that pie bigger,” she said.

Source: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/business/article-women-at-risk-of-prolonged-unemployment-rbc-warns/

Hamas court says women need guardian’s approval to travel

Of note:

A Hamas-run Islamic court in the Gaza Strip has ruled that women require the permission of a male guardian to travel, further restricting movement in and out of the territory that has been blockaded by Israel and Egypt since the militant group seized power.

The rollback in women’s rights could spark a backlash in Gaza at a time when the Palestinians plan to hold elections later this year. It could also solidify Hamas’ support among its conservative base at a time when it faces criticism over living conditions in the territory it has ruled since 2007.

The decision by the Sharia Judicial Council, issued Sunday, says an unmarried woman may not travel without the permission of her “guardian,” which would usually refer to her father or another older male relative. Permission would need to be registered at the court, but the man would not be required to accompany the woman on the trip.

The language of the ruling strongly implied that a married woman would not be able to travel without her husband’s approval.

The edict also said that a man could be prevented from traveling by his father or grandfather if it would cause “grave harm.” But the man would not need to seek prior permission, and the relative would have to file a lawsuit to prevent him from traveling.

The ruling resembles the so-called guardianship laws that long existed in ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia, where women were treated as minors requiring the permission of a husband, father or even a son to apply for a passport and travel abroad. The kingdom loosened those restrictions in 2019.

Hassan al-Jojo, head of the Supreme Judicial Council, told The Associated Press that the ruling was “balanced” and consistent with Islamic and civil laws. He dismissed what he called “artificial and unjustified noise” on social media about the edict.

He justified the measure by citing past instances in which girls had traveled without the knowledge of their parents and men had left their wives and children without a breadwinner.

Israel and Egypt have largely sealed Gaza’s borders since Hamas seized power from rival Palestinian forces in 2007. Israel says the restrictions are needed to isolate the militant group, which has fought three wars with Israel, and prevent it from acquiring arms.

The territory is home to some 2 million Palestinians. All Gazans must go through a lengthy permit process to travel abroad and largely rely on the Rafah crossing with Egypt, which only opens sporadically. The restrictions make it difficult for people to seek medical care or higher education outside the narrow coastal strip.

The ruling sparked criticism on social media, where many accused Hamas of rolling back women’s rights even as Saudi Arabia has eased its restrictions, including by allowing women to drive. The Palestinian People’s Party, a small left-wing group, called on Hamas to reverse the decision.

Zainab al-Ghunaimi, an activist who runs a Gaza-based group focused on women’s rights, said the ruling contravenes the Palestinian Basic Law, which grants equal rights to adults, and means that authorities are “going backwards in protecting human rights.”

She noted that the same legal body allows a woman to marry at age 16 and get travel documents on her own.

Hamas has not imposed the kind of harsh interpretation of Islamic law championed by other armed groups, such as the Islamic State group and the Taliban in Afghanistan. But it has taken some limited steps to enforce the territory’s conservative mores, including the imposition of an Islamic dress code on female lawyers and high school students.

Source: Hamas court says women need guardian’s approval to travel

Lente marche vers la mixité [corporate board diversity]

May have missed the english media coverage:

C’est droit devant, inexorablement. Les gains sont là, mais la marche vers la mixité des conseils d’administration et de la haute direction demeure lente. On l’imagine, la cible se veut encore plus éloignée lorsqu’on élargit le parcours de la représentativité à la diversité.

La plus récente étude sur la question de la diversité a été publiée lundi par l’Institut sur la gouvernance d’organisations privées et publiques (IGOPP). Sur la mixité, on y lit que « même si les gains réalisés au cours de la dernière décennie sont notables, il reste beaucoup à faire en matière de représentativité des femmes sur les conseils d’administration (CA) ainsi qu’au niveau de la haute direction des entreprises ».

L’IGOPP proposait, il y a 10 ans, une cible de 40 %. Une référence mondiale situe, d’ailleurs, la zone de parité hommes-femmes optimale au sein de l’équipe de gestion entre 40 et 60 %. Cette représentation féminine a, certes, presque doublé depuis 10 ans, mais, à un peu plus de 29 % au sein des conseils d’administration des grandes entreprises inscrites en Bourse et à 26 % au niveau de la haute direction, on se retrouve encore loin de la cible.

Que dire des minorités visibles, qui comptent pour 22 % de la population canadienne, mais qui occupent moins de 5 % des sièges aux conseils et moins de 9 % des postes de haute direction ?

Le regard de l’IGOPP a porté sur 76 entreprises d’incorporation fédérale pouvant représenter le tiers des sociétés composant l’indice boursier S & P / TSX. L’exercice vient mesurer un premier effet des modifications apportées par le gouvernement à la Loi canadienne sur les sociétés par actions ayant pour objectif « d’augmenter la diversité observée au sein des conseils d’administration et de la haute direction des sociétés inscrites en bourse », en vigueur depuis janvier 2020.

Outre la présence des femmes, ces modifications visaient plus large en s’étendant à la représentation des peuples autochtones, des personnes handicapées et des personnes qui font partie des minorités visibles, explique l’Institut.

Cet élargissement suit l’entrée en vigueur, au 31 décembre 2014, de la réglementation sur l’Information concernant la représentation des femmes au sein des conseils d’administration et des instances des émetteurs assujettis. Au Canada, les autorités de réglementation n’ont pas retenu la formule de quotas, préférant plutôt une approche de divulgation s’étendant à la haute direction selon la formule « se conformer ou
s’expliquer ».

L’on parle donc d’un engagement moral, mais non contraignant, qui s’insère cependant dans une mouvance plus généralisée d’adoption des critères environnementaux, sociaux et de gouvernance auprès des investisseurs reconnaissant la portée et la contribution de la diversité.

Beaucoup à faire

Certes, l’exercice de l’IGOPP comporte ses limites et l’on admet une probable surévaluation de la représentation mesurée pour les postes de haute direction, mais l’on peut se faire une idée sur le chemin restant à parcourir et sur le rythme de renouvellement des administrateurs et des hauts dirigeants, qui constitue un frein aux yeux de l’IGOPP.

Et l’on retient que seulement 47 % des entreprises observées s’étaient dotées de cible à atteindre en matière de représentativité des femmes au sein des CA. À peine 18 % se sont fixé des objectifs précis touchant la haute direction.

Ce constat vient rejoindre d’autres études sur le sujet. En décembre dernier, le cabinet KPMG indiquait que 96 % des 100 plus importantes entreprises inscrites en Bourse soumises à la loi fédérale comptaient au moins une femme dans leur conseil d’administration au 31 mai 2020, contre 67 % au 31 mai 2014.

Inversement, 4 % de ces sociétés avaient un conseil d’administration composé uniquement d’hommes et 24 % avaient une équipe de direction entièrement masculine. Ces pourcentages s’établissaient respectivement à 33 % et à 29 % au 31 mai 2014.

L’on écrivait aussi que, s’il y a amélioration, il y a toutefois disparité entre les postes de conseil d’administration et ceux de la haute direction. KPMG a mesuré que deux fois plus d’hommes que de femmes ont accédé à des fonctions d’administrateurs entre le 31 mai 2014 et le 31 mai 2020, et trois fois plus à des postes de haute direction.

À l’évidence, il reste encore beaucoup à faire. Dans une étude mondiale publiée par le cabinet Deloitte datée du 30 octobre 2019, on lisait que, globalement, les femmes occupent 16,9 % des sièges aux conseils d’administration, soit une maigre hausse de 1,9 point de pourcentage par rapport à l’édition 2017 de l’étude.

À ce rythme, il faudra plus de 30 ans pour atteindre la parité, disait Deloitte. Et l’on ne parle pas des fonctions de haute direction.

Source: Lente marche vers la mixité

Review finds successes, failures in Liberals’ feminist aid approach in Afghanistan

More failures than successes. Money quote: “…failure to ensure Canada’s attempts to increase gender equality included “a deeper understanding of Afghanistan’s local cultural context and Islamic tradition.””

An internal review of the nearly $1 billion in foreign aid that Canada quietly spent in Afghanistan after the Canadian military pulled out has found some successes but also many failures — especially when it comes to helping women and girls.

The Global Affairs Canada review covers the period between 2014 and 2020, during which Afghanistan remained a top destination for Canadian aid dollars even after the last Canadian troops had left and public attention drifted elsewhere.

Published on the department’s website late last month, the reviewers’ final report comes amid another round of peace talks between the Afghan government and Taliban to end decades of nearly continuous fighting in the country.

It also follows a Canadian commitment in November to contribute another $270 million in aid over the next three years to Afghanistan, adding to the heavy investment that Canada has already made in the country since 2001.

The reviewers found that the $966 million in Canadian foreign aid spent since 2014 was almost entirely focused on empowering and supporting Afghan women and girls, particularly after the Liberals launched their feminist-aid policy in 2017.

Those efforts led to some tangible progress, including the adoption of gender equality in some Afghan institutions, a decrease in violence against women in some communities, more educational opportunities for girls and better health-care services for both.

“Projects in the womens’ and girls’ rights and empowerment sector resulted in female beneficiaries becoming more active, confident and self-sufficient,” adds the reviewers’ report.

Yet the review, which included analyzing internal Global Affairs documents and interviews with Canadian, Afghan and international government staff and NGOs as well as average Afghans affected by the projects, found many problems as well.

Chief among them was a failure to ensure Canada’s attempts to increase gender equality included “a deeper understanding of Afghanistan’s local cultural context and Islamic tradition.” It also failed to include men and boys in its programs.

“The definition of gender roles was so central to Afghan society and culture during the period that any planned changes required not only consultation with male household members, but also with the larger community,” the report said.

Those shortcomings threatened to leave the perception of gender equality being imposed on Afghans, the report said, adding: “If not carefully managed, there was the risk that gender-equality efforts promoted by Western donors could lead to backlashes and harm.”

The reviewers cited several examples, such as women who used shelters to escape domestic violence being shunned by their families and women in the Afghan army facing direct threats, as among the unintended consequences of current efforts.

Memorial University foreign aid expert Liam Swiss, who has written extensively on the Liberals’ feminist approach to foreign aid, said the report’s findings reflected many of the concerns and criticisms that were voiced when the policy was first launched.

That includes a one-size-fits-all strategy that didn’t take into account the local conditions and culture in the countries where Canadian aid is being channelled — of which Afghanistan is one of the most difficult.

“That’s the problem when you kind of stake out a really broad set of priorities on your aid,” Swiss said. “If you’re trying to make them apply to all and to everywhere, you’re going run into a lot of issues of local appropriateness, local receptivity.”

The reviewers also suggested that Canada was guilty of the same sins as many of its western counterparts in Afghanistan, namely focusing its aid dollars on areas that it was more interested in than what was really needed in the country.

That was reflected in the lack of consultations with local communities and a limited consideration for the specific needs of the many different ethnic and religious communities in Afghanistan, which undermined their effectiveness and sustainability.

In fact, the reviewers found Canada did not actually have a strategy for its engagement in Afghanistan. Global Affairs also failed to adapt to the changing needs and environment as the Afghan government lost territory to the Taliban between 2017 and 2020.

The report instead paints a picture of Canadian diplomats and aid workers keeping their eyes firmly glued on their own priorities even as the Taliban was wresting more and more of the country away from Kabul.

To that end, the reviewers said nearly all of those interviewed as part of their study believed the progress made by Canadian aid efforts over the years will be threatened or completely undone if security in the country deteriorates further.

That possibility continues to loom over Afghanistan’s future amid the peace talks and as the world waits to see whether incoming U.S. president Joe Biden will continue the Trump administration’s work to withdraw American forces from the country.

Global Affairs spokeswoman Patricia Skinner said while the report shows progress has been made in Afghanistan, the department will address the reviewers’ six recommendations — including changing how it promotes gender equality — over the next two years.

Nipa Banerjee, who previously led Canadian aid efforts in Afghanistan before joining the University of Ottawa, said she hopes the review will lead to changes – including a more expansive approach.

“With all the insecurity and everything, shouting about women’s rights only, it’s not going to be very helpful,” Banerjee said.

“And Afghans themselves think that. They’re saying it is important, but without security and without political order, nothing will succeed. Women’s programs will not go anywhere. So there has to be compromises.”

Source: Review finds successes, failures in Liberals’ feminist aid approach in Afghanistan

Germany Moves Toward Requiring Women On Large Companies’ Executive Boards

Of note to Canadian regulators, broadening to visible minorities and Indigenous peoples:

Germany has taken a step toward requiring what has not happened voluntarily: putting women on the management boards of the country’s largest companies.

On Wednesday, Germany’s cabinet approved a draft law that would require stock exchange-listed companies with executive boards of more than three members to have at least one woman and one man on those boards.

The rule would affect about 70 companies – of which some 30 currently have no women at all on their management boards, the Justice Ministry said. These companies generally have more than 2,000 employees.

The draft law will now go to the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, for a vote.

The legislation also contains a provision intended to improve the effectiveness of a 2015 law that requires leading companies’ supervisory boards — which are generally chosen by shareholders and don’t have executive powers — to have at least 30% of their positions occupied by women.

The new law would extend the 30% requirement to companies in which the federal government is the majority shareholder. That includes Deutsche Bahn, the German railway company. In addition, executive boards – responsible for managing the company – that have more than two members will be required to have at least one woman. These measures would affect about 90 companies.

Federal Minister for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth Franziska Giffeycalled the law a “milestone” that would ensure there will no longer be women-free boardrooms in these large companies. The law would make Germany better prepared for the future, she said, and more able to capitalize on its potential.

“We have seen for years, not many changes are made voluntarily, and progress is very slow,” Giffey said in a statement.

An October 2020 report by the AllBright Foundation, which advocates for boardroom diversity, found that Germany lags the U.S., France, the U.K., Poland and Sweden in the proportion of women on executive boards at leading companies.

The study found that in the U.S., women comprise 28.6% of the executive boards of the 30 largest publicly traded companies. In Germany, that figure is just 12.8%. And only four of Germany’s largest 30 listed companies had more than one woman on their executive boards.

Janina Kugel, a former Siemens executive who is now an equality advocate, told Deutsche Welle the new quota would be an important signal.

“The perception of Germany is that, because we’ve had a female chancellor for the last 15 years, Germany is very progressive in that matter, but actually it is not,” she said.

The U.S. has also begun to confront the issue of gender disparity in boardrooms.

In 2018, California became the first U.S. state to require companies based there to have women on their boards of directors.

And the U.S. stock exchange Nasdaq announced diversity requirements last month. Under the rule submitted to the Securities and Exchange Commission, Nasdaq would require companies traded on its exchange to appoint at least one woman and at least one member of an ethnic or racial minority or LGBTQ+ person to their boards of directors.

Source: Germany Moves Toward Requiring Women On Large Companies’ Executive Boards

Is The Pandemic Causing A Surge In Female Genital Mutilation?

Disturbing:

In early December, Christine Ghati Alfons taught a menstrual hygiene class to a group of girls, 10 to 15 years old, in the ethnic Kuria community in Migori County, an impoverished, rural area in southwest Kenya. Normally, she says, the class has 25 students. On this day, only 17 girls showed up.

“We lost some of these girls,” says Ghati Alfons, founder of the Safe Engage Foundation, a community-based group that works to end female genital mutilation (FGM).

According to Ghati Alfons, the eight missing girls had all undergone “the cut,” as FGM is often called; two of them had then been married off, the other six were home recovering. Nine other girls who attended the class had also been subjected to genital cutting in recent months, she says.

Ghati Alfons’ missing students are part of a massive wave of girls believed to have been subjected to FGM, and in many cases, subsequently married off, since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s happening not just in Kenya but across East and West Africa, according to a September report from the Orchid Project, a London-based nonprofit that works with global partners to end FGM. The practice occurs in many parts of the world, though the Orchid Project’s report highlighted the pandemic-era surge in Africa. It also attempted to gather information about parts of Asia where FGM is prevalent but was unable to draw conclusions because of a lack of systemic reporting.

Anti-FGM activists say lockdowns and school closures during the pandemic left many girls at home, vulnerable to genital cutting in communities that see the practice as a prerequisite for marriage and, in some places, as a rite of passage. Girls who have not been cut might be shunned by the community or considered not fit for marriage.

“The girls are normally protected and shielded by the fact of being in school, which is an alternative to marriage,” says Domtila Chesang, founder of I-Rep Foundation, a community-based group aimed at eradicating FGM in West Pokot County in Western Kenya.

Economic pressures heightened by the pandemic have led many struggling parents to seek bride prices — the payment of goods such as cattle to a family for a bride.

“These girls are not just being cut. They are also being forcibly married off. And a girl that has had FGM is worth more. It’s seen as an investment into the girl and her ability to be married off,” says Nimco Ali, an activist who was born in Somaliland and subjected to FGM. She now lives in London, where she leads The Five Foundation, a global partnership to end FGM.

FGM can have long-lasting impacts on health, including scarring, urinary incontinence, painful sexual intercourse and complications during childbirth, as well as psychological consequences such as anxiety and depression.

In parts of West Africa, some former cutters who had abandoned FGM have returned to the practice “because it was a way that they saw that they could obtain income at this difficult time,” says Ebony Riddell Bamber, head of policy and advocacy at the Orchid Project. But the increase in FGM is particularly startling in Kenya, because the country, which outlawed the practice in 2011, was widely seen as making real strides toward eradicating it. Last year, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta made an ambitious pledge to stamp out FGM by 2022. Then came the pandemic, which redirected policing and other resources elsewhere, allowing local traditional leaders to flout the law.

Around 21% of Kenyan girls and women aged 15 to 49 have undergone FGM. But the prevalence varies dramatically. It’s nearly universal among some ethnic groups and practically nonexistent among others, according to UNICEF.

Ghati Alfons says FGM remains widespread among Kenya’s Kuria community, many of whom live in “abject poverty.” She explains: “They don’t even have something to eat, but here comes someone who is offering them some money in exchange for [marrying] their daughters.”

Ghati Alfons says that traditionally among the Kuria people, cuttings took place beginning in November, at the end of the Kenyan school year. But this year, school closures that began in March left girls exposed at home, and the cuttings began much earlier. As many as 2,800 girls — some as young as 7 or 8 years old — in Kuria are believed to have been cut between September and mid-October, when Kenyan schools partially reopened, according to estimates from the Five Foundation based on reports from activists on the ground.

“Normally they cut for two weeks, but this time they went for more than four weeks,” Ghati Alfons says. “So that means more girls were cut and many girls are now not even back to school.” She says many of the girls subjected to FGM have been married off, and many others did not return to school because they needed time to heal.

After being cut, Kuria girls are publicly showered with shoes, clothes and other gifts, which can serve as an enticement to other girls to undergo the procedure, Ghati Alfons says. “I grew up longing for the cuts because of the gifts,” she says. She says she changed her mind after her mother told her that her late father had been adamantly opposed to FGM.

Samburu County, a rural, pastoralist region of northern Kenya, also saw a sharp increase in girls being subjected to genital mutilation during the pandemic, says Josephine Kulea, founder and executive director of the Samburu Girls Foundation, which works to prevent FGM on girls as young as 7 by convincing their families to enroll them in school and supporting them through university.

Kulea says Samburu County has high rates of illiteracy, and the girls who do get educated attend boarding schools. But when schools closed in March, girls returned to their villages at a time when they were hosting mass circumcisions of boys. “So when the girls went back to the villages, it was an opportunity to cut them too,” she says.

Kulea says her group alone reported more than 500 cases of female genital mutilation and child marriages to the authorities from just three Samburu villages between March and July, but she estimates the number of Samburu girls affected may have been twice that amount. “You can tell who has been cut by how the girls are walking,” she says.

“I’m sure in January when schools reopen there will be very few girls back in school, because most of them got married,” she says.

Chesang says in Kenya’s West Pokot County, over 1,000 girls fell victim to mass cuttings earlier this year, though she says the government disputes that number. Her group is currently sheltering about 25 girls they rescued from FGM. “There are also some girls who have been forced into marriage that I tried to save but failed,” Chesang says. She, too, worries that many girls who were cut in her area will never return to school, because they’ve been married off or have become pregnant.

Chesang, Kulea and Ghati Alfons all say the cuttings in their respective regions have slowed down. In part, that’s because so many girls have already been subjected to FGM. But they all agree that the Kenyan government has stepped up its efforts to enforce anti-FGM laws and punish perpetrators in the wake of Kenyan media coverage of the spike in cuttings and the ensuing public outcry.

Some of that media coverage came in October, after Ghati Alfons and other anti-FGM activists shared videos on social media showing hundreds of Kuria girls being paraded and celebrated in the streets after being subjected to FGM.

“The airing of the issues on national television really worked,” Ghati Alfons says. “And that is one thing that I feel so proud of and so happy about this year.”

It’s one thing to have laws against FGM, Ali says, but you also need activists on the ground to hold local leaders accountable for enforcing them.

“Unless you’re within communities doing the work day in, day out, so when times like the pandemic occur, you can be there to actively prevent and protect girls, we will keep on seeing these peaks” in FGM, Riddell Bamber says.

And Ali wants to hold Kenya’s president to his promise to end the practice by 2022. That goal is “beyond ambitious,” she says. “Now, he has to step up to the plate to actually start to protect the girls in the rural communities.”

Source: Is The Pandemic Causing A Surge In Female Genital Mutilation?

Interfaith marriage fatwa feeds debate in Egypt

Of note, one of the issues of debate between more inclusive or traditional interpretations:

An Islamic scholar has stirred up major debates by backing the marriage of Muslim women and non-Muslim men, an issue always dealt with nervously by the religious establishment and pro-establishment scholars.

Amna Nosier, a professor of Islamic philosophy at Al-Azhar University and a member of the Egyptian Parliament, said there is no text in the Quran that bans the marriage of Muslim women and non-Muslim men. Islam permits Muslim men to marry non-Muslim women, provided that they do not prevent them from observing their faith.

There are many instances of Muslim men, including celebrities, who have married non-Muslim women. Egypt’s former minister of religious endowments, Mahmud Hamdi Zakzouk, who died in April this year, was married to a German Christian woman.

Speaking on al-Hadath al-Youm TV Nov. 17, Nosier added that the question is especially clear if the men are Christians or Jews, which Islam calls “people of the book.”

A day later, Nosier told the state-run Channel One TV that the Quran only forbids the marriage of Muslim women and “idolaters.” She called on religious scholars to study and reconsider the issue.

Nosier’s remarks were met with a round of fatwas from the nation’s religious establishment and pro-establishment scholars.

Al-Azhar, the highest seat of Sunni Islamic learning, said the marriage of Muslim women and non-Muslim men is not permissible.

“This is an issue on which all scholars agreed in the past and agree in the present,” Al-Azhar said in a Nov. 18 statement.

Abdullah Rushdi, a researcher at the Ministry of Religious Endowments, which oversees the work of the nation’s mosques, described this type of marriage as a form of adultery and “invalid” in a video uploaded Nov. 18.

Ahmed Kerima, a professor of comparative jurisprudence at al-Azhar University, said all Muslim scholars are united against this form of marriage.

“This is a well-established opinion at all times and everywhere,” Kerima told Sada al-Balad TV Nov. 18.

Whether Muslim women should be allowed to marry men who do not follow their faith is an issue that has always been the subject of anxious and acrimonious discussion.

The religious establishment says the Quran speaks against this marriage beyond any doubt, citing verses from the holy book of Muslims that ban the marriage of Muslim women and “idolaters.”

Nevertheless, those calling for sanctifying this form of marriage draw a line between “idolators” and “people of the book.”

Beneath this row lies a need for the reexamination and reinterpretation of religious texts, say religious reformists, especially concerning issues on which the scriptures do not offer clear rules.

“The fight over interfaith marriages is now within Al-Azhar,” said Khalid Montasser, a medical doctor, writer and staunch campaigner for religious reform. “It is between those who want renewal and those who want to keep things as they are with the aim of controlling the public,” he told Al-Monitor.

Historian and researcher Maged M. Farag, one of thousands of people debating interfaith marriages in cyberspace in the past few days, said he knows of dozens of Muslim women who married non-Muslim men.

“They register civil marriage contracts in Lebanon, Cyprus and other countries,” Farag said. “Some non-Muslim men even convert to Islam on paper only. Those living outside Egypt do not care a whit about the fatwas of these sheikhs,” Farag wrote on Facebook.

Nosier says these problems are why there is an urgent need for religious scholars to discuss modern issues and guide believers on dealing with them.

“This is a very serious issue that affects the lives of millions of Muslim women living in the West,” Nosier told Al-Monitor. “Some of these women have to live with their non-Muslim partners without being married to them, as their religion prohibits it. We must renew our understanding of religion to keep up with the changes happening in our life.”

The issue became a hot topic in Egypt after Tunisia overturned a law that prevented Muslim women from marrying non-Muslims in 2017.

Muslim men being permitted to marry non-Muslim women gives rise to accusations that men interpret religious texts in their own interests.

“Men dominate the interpretation of religious texts,” feminist writer and equality campaigner Dena Anwer told Al-Monitor. “Women can no longer be ignored, especially with the major role they play in society.”

TV host Yasmine el-Khateib expressed the view that allowing Muslim women to marry non-Muslim men would be the “correction” of a mistake men make by giving themselves rights they deny women.

The ongoing debate is likely to continue and deepen, but may or may not lead to social change.

Cases of interfaith marriage often elicit shock and condemnation among a large number of Egyptians. Under this shock is the unwavering stance of the religious establishment that these marriages are unacceptable in Islam, especially if they are of women marrying non-Muslim men.

Mohamed Gamal, a civil servant in his early 40s using a pseudonym, said he married a non-Muslim woman even as everyone around him opposed it.

“My family opposed it and her family opposed it, too,” Gamal told Al-Monitor.

He said he has to hide his wife’s religious identity to avoid trouble. “Everybody is against interfaith marriages, even as Muslim men are permitted to marry non-Muslim women,” Gamal said.

Al-Monitor contacted several Muslim women who have married non-Muslim men, but none were ready to talk.

“Muslim scholars prohibited the marriage of Muslim women and non-Muslim men at all times and everywhere, having based their judgment on strong evidence,” said Osama al-Hadidi, the director of the Al-Azhar Fatwa Center, the website through which Al-Azhar reaches out to Muslims around the world. “They did this for the welfare of families,” he told Al-Monitor.

Source: Interfaith marriage fatwa feeds debate in Egypt