The global COVID-19 pandemic is taking a particularly heavy toll on girls and young women across Africa.
Sadly, many girls in Africa are disenfranchised from birth.
They are born into poverty and vulnerable to inequalities in health and education, along with socio-economic and gender inequalities. Access to health and education is not automatic. Many girls remain marginalized throughout their lives, both geographically and economically. This exposes girls to collateral risks associated with poverty – and, at the moment, with COVID-19.
I have been lucky to be able to pursue my passion for the health and rights of women and girls for a number of years now. My work has focused on sexual and reproductive health, gender-based violence, female genital mutilation or cutting (FGM/C), and child, early and forced marriage. My experience has mainly been built by working with marginalized communities in Kenya that practice FGM/C – including the Maasai, Samburu, Kalenjins, Meru, and Somali communities.
Education Opens Horizons
In 2016, in the early years of my work in Kenya, I visited a rescue center in Samburu County. I was devastated by the reality of life for many Samburu children. Living a nomadic lifestyle in geographically vast areas, basic infrastructure to support health and education was lacking.
It took us a whole day to drive to the main town, Maralal, where the center was located. Along the road, I saw children herding cattle and goats within the national park, which is full of wild animals such as lions, elephants, giraffes, zebras, and antelopes.
The perplexing thing was that among the children were many girls, the youngest of whom looked about six years of age. Spending their days and evenings herding cattle in the woods away from home. Outside the protection of adult family members, means these girls are exposed to sexual and gender-based violence.
While visiting the center the next day, we found a newly rescued nine-year-old girl. She was rescued from forced child marriage to a seventy-year-old man who already had multiple wives. The young girl had just undergone FGM/C. Her wounds were still raw. She was brought to the center to heal and attend school, since she hadn’t previously had the chance to receive an education.
My colleagues and I were left debating how a girl will ever make it in life without an education, good health, or any future economic opportunities. For many girls in Kenya and elsewhere, their progress is curtailed and their horizons limited from childhood as a result of traditional practices which are linked to livelihoods.
Co-existing Crises Leave Girls at Risk
I can only imagine how much harder life is for girls in Samburu in the face of COVID-19. I have heard many horrific stories from my colleagues about how lockdown measures, combined with school closures and the subsequent dwindling of family resources and general livelihoods, have left more girls exposed to FGM/C and child marriage.
They are forced by their circumstances to be “sold” into marriage, either for money or cattle.
Unfortunately, in Kenya the COVID-19 crisis has also been accompanied by many natural calamities including a locust invasion, drought and flooding in many parts of the country, meaning that food is scarce.
Nomadic communities like the Samburu have been hit particularly hard. They rely on markets to sell their animals for money to satisfy their basic needs. When markets are closed, as they are currently, they cannot sell. The food crisis is likely to lead to even more girls being married in exchange for food for their families and a semblance of security.
At the same time, the focus of law enforcement in Kenya has been on stopping the spread of the coronavirus. This has resulted in many cases of gender-based violence, FGM/C and child marriage being shoved onto the back burner. As if they are not a crisis that deserves immediate attention.
Community activists working in Samburu have reported feeling powerless and hopeless. They are between a rock and a hard place, sometimes having to choose between reporting cases to the authorities and their lives being threatened.
Listening to Communities is More Important Than Ever
The Kenyan government has not embraced a multi-sectoral approach in dealing with the overall impact of COVID-19. Instead, they’ve taking a rather narrow approach to public health. Because of the focus on curbing transmission, fostering strategic engagement that includes stakeholders working in gender-based violence, FGM/C, and child marriage has been sidelined.
Including community systems in the prevention of and response to FGM/C and child marriage is more important than ever. More women and girls are now at risk of harmful practices and gender-based violence.
These strategies should include:
- working closely with community advocates and activists,
- working with community health workers who can play a significant role in surveillance of at-risk girls,
- mapping them and linking them up with healthcare and legal services, and
- setting up rescue homes and centers that could house them temporarily until the COVID-19 crisis subsides.
The majority or all of the safe centers or homes were ordered to close as part of the lockdown measures. The girls and women being housed in those centers were asked to return home in the midst of Covid-19. A doubly tragic situation for them.
So what can we do, in the face of these co-existing crises?
The greatest lesson that we can learn is that it is crucial to deliver multi-sectoral responses to FGM/C and child marriage. This means actors working together. A broader approach is needed. One that considers the wider socio-ecological aspects of livelihoods including education, health, emergencies, climate crisis and other factors which impact on the harmful practices of these communities.
State and non-state actors need to widen their nets and protect African children and girls in particular – who, as is so often the case, carry the heaviest burdens of poor health and well-being.
- Read more about Amref Health Africa’s work to end FGM/C, which is supported by the players of People’s Postcode Lottery.
- Lend your voice: join the Global Platform for Action to End FGM/C
Dr Esho is the Director of the Amref Health Africa End-FGM/C Centre of Excellence; Secretary General, African Society for Sexual Medicine; and Associate Member, Africa Coordinating Centre for the Abandonment of FGM/C.