The COVID-19 pandemic has produced a number of challenges, however the devastating impact for the trajectory of women’s rights will remain even after a vaccine is produced. In mid–March of this year, the government of Kenya decided to close schools for safety reasons. The effect of the closure on the female demographic has been palpable as many young girls have become vulnerable to the risk of female genital mutilation (FGM), teen pregnancy and child marriage.
Whilst FGM is officially prohibited in Kenya, it is still practised by a select few tribes. The prevalence of FGM dropped from 28 percent in 2008 to 21 percent in 2014, since the enactment of the law in 2011. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically changed the environment regarding the policing of FGM. Thus, women’s rights are threatened in Kenya, with young girls having lost the protection of the school environment and community.
Talaso Gababa, a spokesperson for the medical organization Amref Health Africa comments that “before this corona crisis, schools were functioning as a strong safety net.” Furthermore, Gababa explains, “teachers educated children about the risks of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)… this prevented many parents from having daughters circumcised.” However, as girls remain at home, many are at risk of being forced into marriage at a young age. The predominant belief in many tribes in Kenya, specifically the Somali–Ormo ethnic group and the Maasai people, is that girls are ready for marriage post-circumcision.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) recently reported a forecast that an additional 13 million girls globally could be forced into child marriage. The report also stated that the number of girls likely to be subjected to FGM, between now and 2030, had risen by two million. These figures are directly related to the stagnant nature of female rights amidst the pandemic as global efforts to address and curb practices of FGM and child marriage cannot be exercised due to the nature of COVID-19.
Public awareness programmes against FGM have been halted and rescue centres have been closed as a result of the virus. Moreover, calls to helplines have dramatically increased as the national helpline supported by the department of gender affairs in Kenya reported a more than 10-fold increase in calls. During the month of February, there were only 86 calls, yet in June they reported 1,108. Many of the calls reported incidents of child rape.
The future is uncertain as education is considered essential in breaking the cycle of poverty. Recently, 275 former world leaders, economists and educationalists expressed their concerns about the risk of creating a “COVID generation.” A generation in which opportunities for change and progression of equal rights and safety have been permanently damaged as a result of the lack of schooling. Fundamentally, the closure of school is extremely dangerous and posits girls in a vulnerable position. Moreover, the fight for education for girls is under threat; many experts worry that the closure of schools in Kenya and Africa as a whole could negatively impact communities sending daughters to school in the future.
Hence, WHO and UNICEF has recently urged African governments to promote and ensure the reopening of schools in the near future.