The "Shadow" Pandemic Threatening Kenyan Girls and Women
By Dasha Asienga, Copy Editor
After Kenya recorded its first COVID-19 case on March 13, 2020, the country immediately ordered the closure of schools and some workplaces and enforced restricted movement. Though an attempt to prevent widespread infection, these measures have left many women and young girls trapped with their abusers at home, isolating them from support networks. Just three months into the lockdown, an estimated 4,000 school girls below the age of 18 had been impregnated in just one of Kenya’s 47 counties. Moreover, an estimated 152,000 Kenyan teenage girls had become pregnant countrywide, a 40% increase in the monthly average.
Of course, unintended and unwanted teen pregnancies produce lifelong consequences. According to the World Health Organization, repercussions include higher risks of pregnancy complications and maternal mortality; lasting health problems for both the mother and the baby; stigma; rejection; lack of quality education and employment; limited finances to support the child; and violence by peers, parents, or partners.
The high rate of teen pregnancies in Kenya — noting that the majority of them are unintended — could stem from multiple factors. One, with restriction of movement, access to already scarce reproductive health information and contraceptives, especially for those from low-income households, has been challenging; this, in turn, propagates unsafe sexual practices. Two, with the healthcare system already overwhelmed by the widespread pandemic, most healthcare resources have been diverted from other services such as sexual and reproductive health and directed towards curbing the pandemic. Three, because of the economic crisis, many girls are left with no choice but to engage in unsafe, commercial sex to support their families and meet essential needs, further making them vulnerable to being infected with the coronavirus itself due to disregard for physical distancing and mask-wearing. Furthermore, the already extensive violence and exploitation of women and girls in Kenya has been exacerbated by measures taken to contain the virus with both women and men advised to stay at home.
As a women’s rights organization in Kenya called Equality Now detailed in a letter to the government, while the course of action taken by the government in light of the virus was intended for the good of all, they have “compounded and exacerbated the triggers of violence including socio-economic challenges and inequalities resulting in a significant rise in incidences of rape, defilement, domestic violence, [and] intimate partner violence.” Factors such as reduced income, loss of jobs and livelihoods, and limited access to healthcare, police stations, and courts due to physical distancing guidelines and strict curfew measures have provided a fertile ground for gender-based violence.
An example from Human Rights Watch tells the story of a 16-year-old Kenyan girl, Juliet M, who was kidnapped by a man and seuxally assaulted for four days because he needed “female company” to cope with the countrywide COVID-19 lockdown. Wangechi Wachira, the director of the Kenya Feminist Center for Rights Education and Awareness, further reported to Voice of Africa that the center has seen an increase in daily reported domestic violence cases from five to twelve per day. Just last month, a police warden was arrested for raping a female patient in the isolation facility he was meant to protect.
While staying at home and restricting movement is essential to control the virus, the Kenyan government should not neglect the fact that girls and women across the country still need access to reproductive health information as well as support in dealing with gender-based violence. This could include (but is not limited to) quality age-appropriate sexual education in online formats, psychological support services, telehealth services for girls and women seeking help, and effective hotlines.
As Plan International, a non-governmental organization that advocates for the rights of children and girls worldwide, put it, “governments and the private sectors [need] to embrace new ways of providing sexual and reproductive health information and services, including through social media, telehealth, radio, and distance learning and to mitigate the impact of any disruption in supply chains for contraceptives and essential HIV medicines.”
Reproductive autonomy and freedom is every woman’s right. Certainly, a pandemic should not strip that right away and create a ‘shadow’ pandemic that is masked and kept behind the scenes — new, practical, and viable solutions are needed!