In the Pumwani Majengo slum in Nairobi, the Kamukunji Community Empowerment Initiative (KACEI) is committed to holistically supporting and empowering youth and especially young women.. The organization is concerned that many teenagers (ages 11-18) will fail to complete their studies due to unintended pregnancies resulting in early marriages. “What we have been seeing on the roadsides and alleys while heading home to beat the curfew time is really dreadful,” a KACEI official stated, in relation to the emerging threats of COVID-19 on sexual and reproductive health (SRH) of teenage girls. “Teenage girls and boys are engaging in sexual matters, which will affect them after the coronavirus pandemic is over. We are going to have a lot of early unintended teenage pregnancies and early marriages after this,” the KACEI official emphasizes.
The outbreak of COVID-19 has created concern and worry among the Pumwani Majengo population. Many are anxious and afraid and those who are directly or indirectly affected by the virus are in panic. They live in fear and worry as the number of COVID-19 patients continues to rise in Kenya. The outbreak has worsened teenagers’ vulnerabilities to not just early unintended pregnancies and marriages, but also decreased other critical support systems, including education.
Education is among the segments that have been hit hard by the continued spread of the virus, leading to sudden closure of schools in March 2020. The government emphasized that staying at home is safer for the pupils, students and their families but this is now gradually becoming a factor in increased vulnerability for girls due to the rising cases of teenage pregnancy. Unexpected closure of schools was a double tragedy for 15-year-old Chelsea. The closure resulted in more than losing her possibility to learn. Due to the closure she also lost free access to sanitary towels provided under a government scheme to promote menstrual health and hygiene.
It is distressing that dozens of teenage girls have become pregnant during lockdown in the Pumwani Majengo slums, with all the consequences this entails. The Kamukunji Community Empowerment Initiative is concerned about the welfare of the girls and their access to health care and other support services. Access to support and essential materials such as sanitary towels is highly important, as this may protect them from adults who lure them for transactional sex. Ciro, a girl who lives in the slum, says that while she benefited from the free sanitary pads in school, it has become harder to afford them after she finished her secondary school education in 2019. “Sometimes we have to use rags or borrow from friends,” Ciro said. She outlined that lack of sanitary pads can result in desperate deeds: “Girls in Pumwani Majengo slum end up having sex with men so that they can get money to buy pads. Some of my friends have even ended up pregnant just because they could not afford pads.”
“Depressing economic times for the already impoverished families in the Pumwani slums pushes teenage girls into sex”, according to Ms Whitney, founder of KACEI. She works with young mothers from 15 to 31 years old. “They are pressured to have sex right now because this pandemic has pushed them to the limits,” Whitney emphasized. As the government continues to ensure the spread of COVID-19 is reduced, it is important that to mitigate the gendered fall-out for the pandemic that is affecting children and in particular adolescent girls in the slums.
Whitney adds: “Are the parents supposed to struggle to find food for them or buy the girls sanitary towels? What happens if there is no shilling, now that business is bad? It is really tough for the girls. […] their vulnerability to engage in sex for economic reasons increases the risks of being infected with the highly contagious coronavirus, which can be passed on through respiratory droplets from nose or mouth of an infected person. When schools are closed and girls and young women are locked up at home, they face greater risks of exploitation and gender-based violence.” As such, the COVID-19 outbreak and measures taken to control it increase risks of violence, abuse or neglect as protection systems in the slums break down.
KACEI’s inspiration to tell the stories of these teenage girls and mothers is to call for more awareness on the reality of many young girls’ lives and situations of this marginal group. We aim at extending the conversation to other vital social issues such as mental health, socioeconomic empowerment and education of adolescents, youth and young women during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the government continues to ensure the spread of COVID-19 is minimized, it is of high importance to mitigate the gendered fall-out for the pandemic that is affecting children and in particular adolescent girls in Kenya. It is vital that the government ensures that mitigation measures do not limit access to sexual and reproductive health information and services, protection and psychological support services.