Protect girls and women from sexual violence during festive season

A teenage mother with her baby in Isiolo. [Phares Mutembei, Standard]

Just as the height of the Covid-19 pandemic saw a spike in cases of teen pregnancies and sexual and gender-based violence, young girls are in the same danger of sexual exploitation and violence during this extended school holiday.

As exciting as the holiday season is, we cannot ignore the fact that it also worsens the existing vulnerabilities of girls and young women to sexual violence and violation.

Violence against women and girls manifests in different forms including psychological abuse, maltreatment which includes parent or caregiver negligence, sexual violence and psychological violence.

Being home for long puts schoolgoing children at a higher risk of being sexually violated by either someone they know or don't know. This inevitably increases their risk of HIV infection, teen pregnancies, Sexually Transmitted Infections, injuries, and death. Not to mention depression and impaired brain and nervous system development which affects their school performances.

Since many young people have limited access to factual and timely information on sexual and reproductive health, they are less likely to take preventive and protective measures. This is one reason why we have been recording alarming numbers of new HIV infections and teen pregnancies.

Even though research shows that interventions and strategies can reduce HIV infection among survivors of gender-based violence, many young people do not know the right reporting, intervention, and prevention mechanisms.

This calls for a critical policy shift to integrate HIV and GBV and have an HIV deterrence policy to recognise the direct and indirect implications of GBV.

Considering the alarming numbers of teenage pregnancy in the country, we need to address its major causes - with sexual violation being near the top. Some girls are taken advantage of while others are sexually active with limited access to SRH and HIV preventive information and services.

Between January 2022 and February 2022, Kenya recorded about 47,272 pregnancies among girls of 10-19 years which means an average of 770 babies were born. Teen pregnancies rob girls of their future and reduce their prospects for education and employment for they, in turn, must fend for their children.

Furthermore, a 2022 UNAIDS report indicated that keeping girls in school reduces their risk of HIV infection by 50 per cent, postpones marriage and delays them having children, which can in turn build their capacity to get good jobs and become better parents in the future.

Parents and caregivers should be sensitised to recognise signs of violence, how to report, the available channels, and how to support the young survivors and prevention of sexual violence. This would enable the caregivers and parents to intervene faster for the safety of the children.

Policymakers should make and reinforce policies that protect children against violence even out of school. The communities should stop the silence on violence cases to elevate the submerged voices of young survivors and help in healing and creating a safe environment for them.

We are all collectively responsible for protecting and creating a protective environment for girls, and boys during this season. If you have witnessed, heard, or survived violence, do not be silenced, report the cases.

Giving young people relevant and timely sexual and reproductive health information and services will empower them with knowledge, skills, and values to make informed choices about sexuality and lifestyle.