COVID-19 is Leaving More Girls at Risk of Female Genital Mutilation and Child Marriage

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.

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.

Leading Youth Advocacy Movements in the Wake of COVID-19

Nobody ever prepares you adequately for the long and winding road of leadership. One has to be brave enough to quickly rise to the challenge. For Evalin Karijo, her youth leadership role at Amref Health Africa – especially during this time of the pandemic – has put those skills to the test.

When Y-ACT (Youth in Action) was set up a few years ago, it was Amref Health Africa’s first fully youth-led initiative. It was designed for and by the youth. We knew that this was going to be exciting. Three years down the line, the energy and creativity of the youth has been more than anyone ever imagined. Y-ACT has been operating at a time when the role of young people in decision-making processes on issues that affect them is at its highest. Y-ACT is now one of the fastest-growing youth advocacy networks in the region. It also hosts the Youth4UHC Pan-African youth movement.

Before taking on the mantle at Y-ACT, I had spent two years in different leadership roles at Amref. At the time, I was the youngest project lead in the organisation.

Youth and COVID-19

During this pandemic, my experiences in adapting to changing times and leading teams to do so has come in handy.

The youth – in Kenya and across Africa – are likely to bear the biggest burden of the effects of COVID-19. We’re experiencing:

  • rapidly rising cases of unemployment,
  • inadequate access to routine health services,
  • and increasing cases of sexual and gender-based violence among vulnerable adolescents and youth.

A study that we recently carried out with youth highlights how the pandemic is affecting the youth in Kenya.

Youth are great catalysts of change

While the youth are vulnerable in this crisis, it’s inspiring to see their innovation. Young activists and youth volunteers are constantly generating ideas in their spaces to contribute to ending this pandemic.

Young people want to be at the forefront. They want to feel heard and consulted about policies, services and systems that are developed for them.

To amplify the youth voices during the pandemic, Y-ACT is

  • working with youth advocacy movements to co-create solutions,
  • lead teams to work with policy-makers,
  • and ensure that youth are meaningfully engaged in the fight to end the pandemic.

The #ChampionsKwaGround campaign, launched by Y-ACT, has been amplifying voices and efforts of youth and youth-led organisations. They are making incredible contributions in the fight to end COVID-19.

The campaign features youth movements who have taken to digital media to make their voices heard. They spur collective action on COVID-19 and on their priorities, at a time when everybody needs collective action the most.

The campaign also features young health workers on the frontlines of ending the pandemic. It has featured grassroots youth-led organisations leveraging their creativity through arts, murals, and music to create awareness on COVID-19 and influence youth to adopt positive behaviour change to stop the spread of the pandemic.

Other youth advocates at grassroots level innovate and develop income-generating activities including manufacturing home-made soap and masks, while ensuring that they stay safe.

Youth-developed resources and tools: COVID-19 and beyond

Y-ACT has further developed an innovative info-site. It is designed by Kenyan youth and for youth to meet their growing needs as the pandemic continues to evolve. The info-site provides accurate and up-to-date opportunities for young people. It includes:

  • online resources, webinars, and training programmes,
  • helpline numbers set up by the government and partners,
  • employment opportunities,
  • protection services,
  • and COVID-19 youth-related advocacy campaigns.

The team is now co-designing a virtual innovation lab that will provide a platform for youth to co-create solutions to deal with the post-pandemic future.

By focusing on the immediate needs of the youth and co-creating solutions towards a brighter post-pandemic future, Y-ACT is leading the youth to be in a position of authority and influence. This provides the ability to spur different outcomes based on youth creativity, and innovation, during this time of the pandemic.

Evalin Karijo is Project Director of Y-ACT (Youth in Action), an initiative of Amref Health Africa that aims to mentor, support and increase the capacity of youth advocates to influence policy and resource priorities in the areas of gender equality and sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR).

Innovative Solutions to Sexual Healthcare in Switzerland

Noemi, 24, is the youth network co-founder and coordinator for IPPF’s Member Association, Santé Sexuelle Suisse/Sexuelle Gesundheit Schweiz. Here, she shares her experiences and thoughts on the impact COVID-19 is having on sexual healthcare and young people, and talks about how the crisis can offer opportunities.  

The Impact on Sexual Healthcare  

Under normal circumstances, I’d be conducting strategic planning and advocacy work. I would be planning and implementing actions, campaigns and events for the Youth Network, and coaching, motivating and training youth volunteers.

The COVID-19 situation is impacting and intensifying my work. We have to focus on the most essential and basic needs concerning SRHR, which are now under threat. We have had to communicate as quickly as possible that abortion services are still available in all Swiss hospitals. The abortion rate dropped tremendously at the start of the pandemic, because women were afraid to go to the hospitals or didn’t know that abortion services are still provided. We contacted all the family planning centers that provide services concerning sexual health. We wanted to gather best practices in these times concerning the provision of contraception, including emergency contraception. We are closely monitoring the situation as best as possible to intervene in the media or get in contact with hospitals and pharmacies as soon as possible to keep people updated on services.

Getting Creative on Social Media  

Next to the monitoring and political work, I started a creative initiative during the COVID-19 isolation. With our Youth Network we created an artistic competition on our FB and Instagram platforms on issues such as masturbation, menstruation, coming out, female genitalia, and pornography.  

The aim is to enhance creativity and allow young people to reflect on sexual and reproductive health and rights in a creative way. The aim was also to offer something fun and positive in this difficult time. As a prize, we are awarding sex toys from a small queer sex store in Switzerland.  

The project has a lot of success; there are a lot of young people in Switzerland participating and thanking us for this initiative. Next to that we inform the young people in Switzerland through our social media channels about sexual health services which are still in place.  

A winning entry from the social media art competition @judendnetzwerk


Opportunities in a Crisis  

I’m sincerely hoping that this crisis helps to find sustainable solutions to problems and gaps in the health system, particularly concerning sexual and reproductive health, which have become visible during the pandemic.  

We could use this crisis for good and advocate for better access to abortion care. It should be made possible to consult via telephone or get medical receipts with online forms. Moreover, the temporary management of medical abortions – with mifepristone and misoprostol – at home during the first 10 weeks of pregnancy following a telephone or electronic medical consultation, rather than having to take the first dose at a health facility, like it is implemented right now in the UK, could become a long-term solution to improve the access to abortion.  

Women’s health and reproductive rights don’t end during a pandemic and we must continue to promote sexual and reproductive health and rights and improve health and gender equality for all during and after the pandemic.  

A crisis like this offers an opportunity for innovative and sustainable solutions. It also provides a reclaimed sense of shared humanity, where people realize what matters most: the health and safety of their loved ones, and by extension the health and safety of their community, country and fellow global citizens.  

And basic health and safety requires comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care.   

Noemi is a representative of IPPF’s European Youth Network; YSAFE.  Subscribe to IPPF’s newsletter for more engaging content about sexual healthcare. 

Linh-Lan Dao on Anti-Asian Racism & French Media

In the fourth episode of We Belong Podcast, we meet Linh-Lan Dao, a TV Journalist for France Info. She works at the fact-checking TV program ‘Vrai ou Fake’ and uses arts to explain the news on the Youtube channel Draw my news.

Following a controversial broadcast by two French humorists, Kev Adams and Gad Elmaleh, Linh denounced prejudice and racism against Asians in a video that reached 2.5 million views. She is committed to standing up to anti-Asian racism and has been particularly vocal since the outbreak of the coronavirus, shedding the light on anti-Asian discriminations, verifying news and tweeting with #Imnotavirus.

In our conversation with Linh-Lan, we discussed her passion for journalism and drawing. We also talked about the importance of giving a voice to Asian communities living in France and their representation in the media.

Episode available on Apple PodcastSpotifyAnchorYoutube and at the bottom of this post.


We Belong is the podcast that gives a voice to the New Daughters of Europe. Yasmine Ouirhrane, appointed expert by the European Union and the African Union, hosts this series of conversations with young women who represent the diversity of Europe. She talks to women who are breaking stereotypes, navigating multiple identities, and challenging the conventional wisdom of what it means to belong.

As an advocate for social and gender justice in Europe, Yasmine Ouirhrane was awarded Young European of the Year 2019 by the Schwarzkopf Foundation. She was also named EDD Young Leader by the European Commission and is an expert on Peace & Security at the AU-EU Youth Cooperation Hub. She is an award-winning fellow at Women Deliver and a member of the Gender Innovation Agora at UN Women.

The Podcast is produced by Les Cavalcades.

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Covid-19 and the Rise of Sexual & Gender-Based Violence

We are in the midst of a pandemic. One way to slow down the spread of coronavirus is to implement lockdown and quarantine measures, which means confining yourself to your home with your family. For some people, this includes an abuser. 

Pandemics often exacerbate existing inequalities for women and girls, who are often most vulnerable to violence and abuse in the home. Charities are already seeing a sharp rise in domestic violence reports since the outbreak of COVID-19. Pandemics also exacerbate discrimination of other marginalized groups, including LGBTQ+ people, people living with disabilities, older people, migrants, refugees and those in extreme poverty. 

Increased Violence 

In China, an anti-domestic violence charity in Hubei province reported that intimate partner violence have nearly doubled since cities had been put under lockdown. The same organization has reported that the police station in Jianli County registered three times more cases in February 2020 than in the same time in 2019. 

There have been huge increases in different forms of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), including intimate partner violence, in many other countries including the UK, Brazil, Germany, Italy, Spain and the United States. In the UK, it is reported that there has been a 120% increase in incidents of domestic violence. 

Self-isolation for women in coercive or violent relationships means being trapped (often without the means of accessing support) with a perpetrator who may become more abusive when there is no other outlet. Lockdowns also mean medical services and support to people affected by sexual and gender-based violence may be cut off or considered lower priority in healthcare structures overburdened by responding to COVID-19 cases.

Lockdowns and lack of prioritization of SGBV response services mean many women will face forced pregnancies. In turn, restricted access to abortion care facilities or pharmacies that provide medical abortions (i.e. misoprostol pills that can be taken at home) if quarantine periods are extended may lead to unsafe abortions and increased mortality among SGBV survivors. 

Another fear is that SGBV survivors may also face difficulties accessing contraception for HIV and STI prevention. Lack of timely treatment can put their health and life at risk. 

Prevention Measures 

Realizing the real danger to women’s lives, some countries have put measures in place to help mitigate SGBV. 

In China, survivors, activists, and organizations have launched a set of actions using social media to raise awareness and support survivors. Some of the actions included creating networks, publishing online manuals on intimate partner violence, and starting a hashtag: #AntiDomesticViolenceDuringEpidemic

After seeing the increase of SGBV cases in China and similar issues in Italy, the Ministry of Equality in Spain launched a national plan that acknowledged the exponential risks of SGBV due to the lockdown mitigation strategy adopted by the national government. 

The plan recognizes the difficulties faced by SGBV survivors in seeking help in confinement. It adapts services to prevent, address, and reduce these risks under the current circumstances. The services include, among other measures, emergency centers for the reception of victims at risks, safe accommodation for survivors, a hotline for information, and an emergency line to send alert messages with geolocation that will be received by state security forces. It has also been announced that an instant chat-messaging system for containment and psychological assistance will be activated. 

Other initiatives of local governments in Spain have caught national attention and will be replicated in different regions across the country. Survivors of SGBV or women at risk can go to a pharmacy and ask for a “Mask-19”. This tells staff at the pharmacy to activate protection services.

What can be done? 

It is clear that IPPF Member Associations have an important role to play by adapting how they provide services and supporting health authorities to adapt theirs. 

It is essential that sexual and gender-based violence helplines are available and that there is an option for women to access support. This could be hrough text message, call centers, or more sophisticated web/app systems, if available. We also want to see increased access to emergency contraception or other contraceptive methods, and for medical abortions to be made available for all women to use at home. 

Finally, we want all governments to recognize the fundamental human right to access sexual and reproductive healthcare. It is a life-saving, essential service for all, especially the most vulnerable and marginalized. 

Subscribe to IPPF’s newsletter for more engaging content about sexual healthcare. 

What does COVID-19 mean for Young Women in the Kibera Slum?

COVID-19 has forced countries around the world to take unprecedented measures to combat the rapid spread of the virus. Although the pandemic affects all of us, it has hit people in urban poor settlements in developing countries especially hard. The global focus has rightfully been on containing the virus, but some sectors are being dangerously neglected. One of these is sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), including safe abortion services. 

At Women Promotion Centre-Kenya (WPC-K), we work with vulnerable and marginalized communities (women, youth, LGBTQ groups) in the Kibera slum. It is the largest urban slum in Africa, characterized by high unemployment and crime rates, deplorable sanitation, poor housing conditions, and a lack of schools and healthcare facilities. The facilities that do exist are poorly structured private entities lacking qualified personnel or adequate equipment.

With the outbreak of COVID-19, the health situation has worsened in the Kibera slum.

This is especially true for girls and young women who need access to comprehensive SRHR – including safe medical abortion. Cases of rape and unprotected forced sexual encounters are on the rise due to movement restrictions. This has led to an increase in unplanned pregnancies and demand for abortion.

Girls and young women are facing hostility from already overstretched healthcare services. The majority of service-seekers are turned away without any form of support or service. After receiving numerous complaints from our beneficiaries, I decided to see what was happening for myself at one of the privately-owned healthcare facilities.

On arrival, I was received by a receptionist who seemed disgusted by my appearance. I was adhering to all sanitizing and social distancing guidance, so I ignored her and asked to see the clinical officer (we rarely have doctors in Kibera). After waiting 30 minutes to be seen, I inquired about family planning options I could use during the current situation. The clinical officer was not willing to help me. Instead, she advised me that contraceptives are ‘not good’ for girls and young women.

This might sound shocking, but it’s common for health workers to make judgements towards young women who are sexually active.

It is also common for them to discourage use of contraceptives by overstating negative side effects and creating excuses about availability. On this particular day, I tried to convince the clinical officer that I and other girls of my generation need contraception desperately. She told me to seek services elsewhere since this facility did not have supplies of contraceptives – even basic ones like condoms – due to restrictions on movement.

Young women are also being denied access to safe medical abortion services. One young woman we work with, Adhiambo (not her real name), found herself in a life-threatening situation. Adhiambo was denied safe services at her local healthcare facility due to the social distancing directed by the governement. Since movement in and out of Nairobi has been restricted, she could not travel to another town. As a result, she attempted to procure abortion secretly with the help of her friend who was equally unqualified.   

In Kibera, due to the measures put in place to combat Coronavirus, many girls and young women are resorting to unsafe abortion practices. These include drinking a herbal concoction, inserting metal clothes hangers into their bodies, drinking Jik (washing detergent) and taking an overdose of prescribed medicines. This is all because they cannot access safe abortion services at a health facility, and will lead to unprecedented health issues in the near future. 

Although there is a need to focus on COVID-19, it is self-defeating for governments to ignore ongoing healthcare needs like SRHR.

It is the right of every girl and woman to have control over her body. This right can only be realized if she is enabled to access comprehensive SRHR, including safe abortion. Women Promotion Center is one of the leading feminist organizations in the Kibera slum. We are currently implementing a SAAF-funded project to tackle community-level, abortion-related stigma. During the current pandemic, we have stepped in to fill the SRHR gap, too. We are distributing essential contraceptives, such as pills and condoms, as well as re-usable sanitary towels and other COVID-19 related personal protective equipment (PPE).

Our staff and volunteers are using public forums to talk to community members about the major symptoms and prevention measures of COVID-19. Additionally, WPC is promoting safe self-managed abortion by strengthening the capacity of community volunteers. These volunteers can provide information and appropriate commodities (such as Misoprostol and Mifepristone) to those who need them.

Despite its overstretched resources, WPC continues to work with young women to strengthen their capacity to demand their rights to comprehensive SRHR services and information – including safe abortion. We are working to ensure that the Ministry of Health and other key stakeholders in the Kenyan health sector prioritize SRHR, especially in the slums like Kibera where they are so urgently needed.  

Women Promotion Centre is a Safe Abortion Action Fund grantee partner.