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Don’t allow virus to expose women to rights abuses

By Rebecca Ong’ang’a | November 14th 2020

Every response to the Covid-19 pandemic should uphold human rights. Health initiatives, whether at national or community level, call for a gender-sensitive approach. There are no two ways to this.

That the rights of women and girls to live free of discrimination and violence, and to access essential sexual and reproductive health services can never be gainsaid.

Indeed, as Amnesty International, International Planned Parenthood Federation and Women’s Link Worldwide warn, coronavirus should not relieve States of their obligations to address social ails that bedevil millions of women and girls.

Abuses and all manner of violations increase when the effects of crises on women and girls are ignored. Equality and non-discrimination should be part of the Covid containment discourse.

Last week, I sat at my favourite spot in my study room, I got lost in my reverie after reading a story on the novel coronavirus and its impact on gender. Just then, my thought process was interrupted as recent news reports on teenage pregnancy in Kenya lingered in my mind. Official government data on the impact of Covid-19 on teen pregnancy rates may not be available yet, but there were reports that thousands of girls got pregnant in Machakos County. This was a major shocker and there’s reason to be worried.

The effects of the pandemic on millions of girls and women in Kenya and the world cannot be overstated. Besides early marriages, rape, pregnancies and negative cultures fuelled by the crisis, girls have had to contend with tough life choices. Most of them are hanging on a cliff.

Reduced incomes and poverty compound women’s woes across the country. Labour statistics have shown that women worldwide earn 23 per cent less than men who in turn have 50 per cent more assets.

As if not enough, the Bureau of Labour Statistics indicates that out of the 20.5 million workers, 55 per cent who are women have lost their jobs since April this year compared to 13 per cent of their male counterparts. This inequality has skyrocketed since the emergence of this pandemic and bridging of the gap is equally not guaranteed after the crisis. We are in the crisis for the long-haul.

What does this mean? Many girls and women will continue suffering even after Covid-19. They will remain prone to sexual exploitation and this could lead to unwanted pregnancies even for school age-going girls.

The unemployment state of women or their spouses could mount to financial stress within the family; leading to domestic violence as well as drugs and substance abuse. Domestic workers, elderly women and those with disabilities face hard times in the pandemic era let alone the health disparities they face during lockdowns.

To stem these worrying trends, women should not lose track in voicing their rights amid the inequalities, the blatant injustices they face as well as economic disparity that is prominent between them and men, among others, in this pandemic and even in post pandemic.

After all, as Hillary Clinton said: “Human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights, let us not forget that among those rights are the rights to speak freely and the right to be heard.”   

Amanda Klasing, the acting co-director of women’s rights at Human Rights Watch recently warned that increases in gender-based violence mask a larger risk that women in the shadows or margins of society will suffer violence without remedy or reprieve if governments don’t act quickly.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and other agencies have an obligation to ensure full respect for fundamental rights during this pandemic period.

-The writer is a teacher

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