In some sections of the Kenyan society, the coronavirus is seen as an equaliser as it infects everyone without bias, but a scorecard on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic indicates that schoolgirls from poor households have suffered more than any other social group in the country.
Results of five case studies conducted by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation in Kenya, Bangladesh, Cote d’Ivoire, Mali and Pakistan noted that early lockdown policies which included dawn-to-dusk curfews led to increased gender-based violence among girls.
In this aspect, school closures in Kenya were linked in the study, "When schools shut: Gendered impacts of Covid-19 school closures," to increased cases of sexual and gender-based violence in form of physical assault, rape or attempted rape, defilement and other sexual offences.
During that period, stress, anxiety, depression and trauma was reported to have been higher among schoolgirls aged 15 to 19, as most of them especially in the urban slums felt they were not protected.
According to Audrey Azoulay, the Unesco Director-General, hard questions were asked as to how social norms may have impacted on learning, as well as to whether school closures widened inequality in terms of risks and vulnerabilities to the overall access to education.
“The impacts of those closures are only beginning to be understood as to how they contributed to risks for students’ health, gender-related violence and learning losses that will be felt in a generation,” said Azoulay.
Comprehensive gender and school closures analysis conducted in four counties of Kilifi, Kisumu Nairobi and Wajir noted that 16 per cent of girls did not return to school.
But whereas some said they were not able to return to school because of school fees, the researchers noted that 13 per cent of schoolgirls in Kisumu, five per cent in Nairobi and four per cent in Kilifi were either pregnant or recently had babies, while another group had been married off by their parents.
According to Dr Ruth Kagia, the deputy chief of staff at the Office of the President, some 250,000 girls that were in school in March last year had not returned to school by February this year, as compared to 125,000 boys. In a study that she jointly conducted with Population Council, numerous adolescent girls faced teenage pregnancies and early marriages.
“One per cent of 15–19-year-old adolescent girls in Kenya are currently pregnant and three per cent recently had a baby,” said Kagia in the study, "Promises to Keep: Impact of Covid-19 on Adolescents in Kenya."
First year of pandemic
Quoting datasets from the Ministry of Health, Kagia and her associates from the Population Council noted that over 328,000 girls got pregnant in the first year of the pandemic and many of them did not return to school because of the unintended pregnancies and the impact of economic downturn. Highlighting the problem impacting on 15-19-year-old schoolgirls in Kenya, Kagia said over 100,000 became victims of teenage marriages.
Of these girls, 32 per cent got married after Covid-19 started, 44 per cent got married because of pregnancy, 16 per cent claimed they would not be married if there was no pandemic and 24 per cent stated that it was not their choice to be married.
What is emerging is that although teenage pregnancy and early marriages have been significant problems for Kenya’s adolescent girls to complete schooling, Covid-19 spiked the problem to higher levels.
Although the frequency of teenage pregnancy and marriage could have increased in urban slums as financial pressure on families intensified, the situation was equally bad among pastoral communities that culturally under-value education of girls in comparison to that of boys.
According to Unesco's study, some girls in Wajir got married out of their own volition because they had heard that since the schools were closed for a very long time they would have to repeat a class to catch up on what they lost. “To them that would be a waste of time, hence, the alternative is to get married,” one girl told researchers in Wajir.
Researchers noted a similar situation in Bangladesh whereby during the Covid-19 school closures, many parents were marrying off their daughters because of the financial crisis affecting families and even uncertainties of life after coronavirus.
“Now it costs less money to marry off a girl, so this is an added advantage,” a teenage girl in Bangladesh told Unesco researchers. But whether in Kenya, or in Bangladesh, it appears school closures may have put more pressure on girls to conform to gender norms.
Prolonged school closure and poor family support systems occasioned by extreme poverty levels impacted far much on adolescent girls as they were forced to take greater burden of domestic labour, providing care for young siblings or older relatives, cooking and cleaning in line with cultural norms and traditional gender role expectations.
According to the report, when schools shut, in all the five countries that were studied, researchers found that girls’ increased time at home often carried a greater burden such that even when remote learning increased, a large number of girls were unable to take full advantage of it.
For instance, one teacher from Murang’a told the researchers: “Now that there is no going to school, I keep my children busy working in the farm, fetching water and firewood, tidying up the house and washing dishes - the girls do more chores than boys.”
In this context, researchers noted there had been an increase in child labour, especially teenage girls being encouraged by their parents to migrate from rural areas, or from informal settlements to urban areas to work as child-carers, as one way of increasing household income.
In such circumstances, one teenage schoolgirl from Kilifi had this to say: “You work from morning to evening, so when it reaches evening, you are too tired to study.”
Girls typically reported more stress, anxiety and depression than boys, although boys were not immune to mental health outcomes.
According to Kagia, 47 per cent of adolescents in Kisumu, 46 per cent in Nairobi and 34 per cent in Kilifi, reported experiencing symptoms associated with depression during the nine-month school closure.
But whereas adolescent girls and boys reported increasing tension in the households and cases of emotional and physical violence, exclusively, girls highlighted cases and incidents of sexual harassment and violence.
The emerging issue is that although most people in extreme poverty in rural areas and their counterparts in the urban slums became highly vulnerable to lockdown, curfew and other coronavirus containment measures, schoolgirls in the 15-19 age band in those areas suffered much more.
Most of them were not protected against criminal activities such as sexual harassment, sexual physical abuse, child marriage, psychological torture, child neglect and general gender-based violence.
As Unesco pointed out, the lives of most of those schoolgirls changed so unexpectedly and drastically and in many cases left them with an uncertain future as their dreams were shattered.
The question that remains is how all Kenyans will achieve social justice without leaving some of them to the mercy of cultural practices that boost socio-economic inequalities.