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The pandemic response undoes progress for women in Kenya

Lockdowns and school closures have closed off options for countless girls.

This teenage girl became a sex worker after schools in Kenya were closed last March because of coronavirus restrictions.
This teenage girl became a sex worker after schools in Kenya were closed last March because of coronavirus restrictions.Brian Inganga/Associated Press

NAIROBI, Kenya — Eight months pregnant, Emily, a 14-year-old eighth-grader, lay on the bed and gazed at the ceiling of her family’s two-room home in Kawangware, a slum district on the outskirts of this African capital. She faces an uncertain future. After her school closed last March on account of COVID-19, she got pregnant, and when the school finally reopened last month, she didn’t report back to class.

“I don’t know what to do with my life. My dreams are shattered, and I am really confused,” she lamented as she tugged nervously at her blouse. She asked me not to use her full name. “I can’t go to school when I’m pregnant. Even [after] I give birth, my parents won’t pay school fees because they are angry at me.”

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Emily met her 30-year-old boyfriend, who is a motorcycle taxi operator, last April. He used to give her money to pay for food, clothes, and other basic items — especially sanitary pads. In return, she was expected to grant him sexual favors, she says. She believes she wouldn’t have become pregnant if schools had remained open, because the Kenyan government dispenses free feminine products there.

COVID-19 has killed fewer than 2,000 people in Kenya, according to data from Johns Hopkins University, but its effects have reverberated particularly badly for girls and women, jeopardizing decades of efforts to reverse deep gender-related inequalities here. In just three months last year while the country was mostly locked down, media reports indicated that 152,000 Kenyan teenage girls became pregnant — a 40 percent increase over the typical rate.

The Kenyan government has not released comprehensive national data on the impact of COVID-19 on teen pregnancy. But health workers across the country suggest that the true figure could be higher than any official count, as many pregnant teenagers visit private clinics where data is not recorded. Patrick Wandera, who runs a private clinic in Busia, a town in western Kenya, says he booked nearly 100 pregnant teenagers for postnatal care during the three-month lockdown last year. He said he previously received 30 to 50 pregnant teenagers a year.

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“The numbers were really shocking,” he says. “Many of them were school-going girls.”

In 1996, Kenya’s government introduced a policy intended to ensure that all school-age pregnant girls return to their educations soon after weaning their babies. Those reintroductions rarely occur, however, because educators have no system for reintegrating young mothers who might have lost a year or two of schooling and whose time for studies is diminished because of their parenting responsibilities.

School closures have also led to increases in female genital mutilation, or the removal of the clitoris from young women, in northern Kenya, where the cultural practice is still encouraged. Schools in the region, especially in the ethnic Maasai and Samburu communities where genital mutilation is practiced, often board their students, making them safe havens for girls fleeing families who have been pressuring them to undergo the procedure. These families associate female circumcision with virginity, which is attractive to traditional men seeking a young bride. Parents and elders took advantage of the school closures to perform the procedure on more girls.

Economic forces unfamiliar to most Americans are at play here: In Samburu, a region 250 miles north of Nairobi, several families facing economic hardship from the pandemic performed genital mutilation on their daughters in order to marry them off to gain a dowry, says Josephine Kulea, founder and executive director of the Samburu Girls Foundation.

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Kulea told me that her group reported to authorities more than 500 cases of genital mutilation and child marriages from just three Samburu villages between March and July, although she estimated the number of Samburu girls affected may be in the thousands.

“These are hard times for Samburu girls, because the majority of them who were in schools chasing their dreams are pregnant and staying home,” Kulea says.

Mercy Lempeei, a 13-year-old Samburu girl from Lerata village, is grateful to have escaped genital mutilation during lockdown. The seventh-grader says her parents were planning to perform the procedure and get her married off after schools closed abruptly because of the virus. That did happen to some of her friends. Fortunately, Mercy’s aunt warned her.

“When I heard of the plan, I took refuge at my aunt’s place until schools reopened,” she says. “My parents are not happy with me because they had already received and used the dowry. They are being told to pay it back if I don’t get married to the man.”

Because premature birth and prenatal death are higher among teenage mothers, Kenya is also poised to experience a spike in those problems. Emily hasn’t sought prenatal care, for example.

“I’m ashamed to get out of this house. My pregnant belly is too big and people are going to laugh at me,” she says. “I only depend on a traditional midwife who comes here to check on me every week.”

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Kenya’s health minister, Mutahi Kagwe, has expressed concern about the rise in teen pregnancies. “Teenage motherhood is a catastrophic, disempowering outcome in the life of a girl,” he said last year. “More often than not it spells doom to the teenager’s attainment of life’s full potential.”

Nonetheless, Kagwe has said he would impose a new lockdown if necessary to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Tonny Onyulo is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi. Follow him on Twitter @TonnyOnyulo.