by Mukonyo Muendo, East Africa Project Coordinator
The late great Prof. Wangari Maathai, Africa’s first female Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, once said, “Human rights are not things that are put on the table for people to enjoy. These are things you fight for and then you protect”. Fulfillment of girls’ and women’s rights globally has not yet been achieved, and the COVID-19 pandemic is putting these rights further in danger.
When schools and community organizations that work with girls started being shut down in East African countries, my worry was: what will happen to our girls? But, as I reached out to the mentors in our East African Girls’ Leadership Summit and Mentor Program, there was evidence of resilience and for hope.
Education is a human right, but with school closures, access to education for marginalized girls is even further limited. Gilda Odhiambo, a mentor and teacher at Wiser Girls Secondary School in Migori, Kenya reports that even though the school had to send the girls home, they are in touch with them constantly. The staff at the school formed a WhatsApp group and included the girls with smartphones in the group for ease of communication and dissemination of homework. They also procured the services of trusted bodaboda (motorcycle) riders to deliver homework to the girls that do not have access to smartphones and pick it up every four days. The bodaboda riders have taken precautions suggested by the Kenyan government such as wearing masks and gloves as they conduct their businesses. WISER has also contacted the girls that graduated and live close to current students to mentor them while the #stayhome order is in place.
Freedom from violence and discrimination are also rights as is the right to health. However, gender-based violence is all too common and access to SRHR services is frequently limited or stigmatized, resulting in high rates of teen pregnancy. According to the latest survey by the National Council on Population and Development, one in five girls aged between 15 and 19 in Kenya is either pregnant or has given birth already. A health worker in Mombasa County recently shared that there was a 10% increase in teen pregnancies in the county in March (when schools were shut down), with the youngest girl being 12 years old. This is a pattern we are likely to see across the region, but our mentors are hard at work to counter this trend.
Ruth Nderitu a mentor at Dandelion Africa, Kenya has ensured that she is in touch with her mentees through texts and calls. In addition, the health centre she works at is still open so as to ensure they deliver youth friendly health services to their beneficiaries and curb the rise of teen pregnancies in their area.
Pauline Ambrose a mentor at Rafiki wa Maendeleo Trust, Kenya has ensured that her mentees have sanitary towels that were enough to last them from March through May. This is critical, because with lockdowns girls are even more pressed for these basic commodities and they will resort to trading sexual favours for menstrual supplies. She is also in constant communication with her mentees through phone calls.
Lastly, Pamela Olwal, a mentor at Nyilolwe Initiative, Kenya has been using Community Health Volunteers (CHVs) to do advocacy on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, Gender-Based Violence, and Sexual and Gender Based Violence The CHVs are also using affirmation words to keep encouraging the girls while they learn from home. Pamela and her team have been in contact with their mentees through their guardians’ phones. She has also encouraged peer-to-peer contact so that the girls can support each other. Furthermore, she has engaged the girls in activities such as making masks and liquid soap for sale. The proceeds of the same will be used to buy baking essentials for them to start businesses and be able to sustain themselves financially.
Hearing reports from our mentors gives me hope that despite the many challenges, we are looking out for each other. At Creative Action Institute, we put our minds together and redesigned our East African Girls’ Leadership and Mentor Program. We are supporting our partners in their work to ensure that girls go back to school when this pandemic is over. On 25th May, we launched the Sauti Ya Dada (the Girls’ Voice) Program which will focus on increasing the SRHR knowledge and resilience among adolescent girls in East Africa through mentor support, SMS-based learning, provision of sanitary towels, radio shows and toll-free lines for easy access of information. All in all, we are in this together and we shall overcome!