COVID-19 is setback for achieving gender equality and empowerment of women and girls.
Mary finished secondary (high) school in Kenya but didn’t have money to go farther. Her father, the headmaster of a primary school, only paid for education for the boys. He had more than one wife and not enough money. So I gave her a job in my house but soon found out she was pregnant.
Goal 5 of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals states: “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls by 2030.” Education is the key for girls and women to reach this goal. I made sure that Mary (her name was changed to protect her privacy) had good prenatal care and delivered her baby safely. Then I used mission money to send her to nursing school so she could return to work at Kiminini Cottage Hospital in Kitale, where I worked. Her daughter is now 12 years old and Mary continues to provide excellent nursing care.
Kenya closed schools in March when the COVID-19 pandemic was announced. Although there are no reliable statistics, Kenyan media reported a significant increase in teen pregnancies during the three months of the pandemic lockdown. On July 14, the Ministry of Education ordered head teachers to go back to work and begin collecting data on school girls who have become pregnant during school closures.
Kenya is one of 26 countries, among the 54 that make up the continent of Africa, to allow a girl to continue at school until and after she gives birth.
In Tanzania the expulsion of pregnant girls from public schools is still permitted under the country’s education regulations. In a recent “Meet a Missioner Monday” interview, Maryknoll lay missioner Loyce Veryser, who teaches secondary school in Mwanza, Tanzania, shared that three parents recently reported their daughters had become pregnant and would not be returning to school.
In Tanzania, almost two out of five girls marry before they reach 18. The government has failed to adopt a law prohibiting the marriage of children under 18. If a girl is married off, her family will receive a dowry from her husband’s family because she leaves her family and enters his family. She is “lost” to her family, and they must be compensated. In that way, her family can obtain property and money through her marriage. Because of Tanzania’s regulations about education, these impregnated girls will never be allowed to return to the public school system. If they want to continue education, they will need to find a place in a private school and the money to pay for it.
In contrast, Kenyan law prohibits marriage before age 18. Any girl younger than 18 years is a minor and cannot consent to sexual activity. Therefore sex with a minor is defined as defilement and incurs stiff penalties.
Mary never identified the man who fathered her child. I never asked. From experience, I know that Kenyan girls and women are assaulted 80 percent of the time by men they know; an uncle, a neighbor, a teacher, even their own father. Patriarchal societies often give preference to boys and men culturally. During the six years I worked in Kitale, I assisted over 120 girls and women with medical examinations after they had been sexually assaulted. My youngest patient was 11 months. The oldest was 79 years. Despite working closely with local authorities we were only able to bring six cases to court and obtain one conviction.
All of these cultural problems are being exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and concomitant global economic collapse. Reports of increased teen pregnancy rates during the pandemic are not surprising. It is common knowledge that every Christmas, when girls go home for their long break, many are abused/used and get pregnant. The longer the schools remain closed, the more it will happen.
Kenya has now closed its schools until Jan 2021, so if or, rather, when the stats show increased pregnancies, the government of Kenya will have to decide how to tackle it. This is a cultural problem deeply rooted in patriarchy, and it is going to be around for a long time yet.
This pandemic will make it harder to attain the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal #5. Progress will be slowed and sometimes halted. The pandemic will cause more panic and suffering for girls who are abused. When we can’t prevent it, we must compassionately attend to it. And as my 79-year-old patient shows, every woman is vulnerable to sexual assault until the day she leaves this earth.
This piece was first published by the Maryknoll Lay Missioners.