By Winnie Kabintie
As the COVID-19 pandemic intensifies and continues to spread across the globe, perhaps other than the economic meltdown the crisis presents, another major area of concern is the impact of the coronavirus outbreak and the enforced lockdowns adopted by affected countries on the health and wellbeing of women especially in developing nations.
Throughout history, women and children have been the biggest victims of war and natural disasters and the catastrophe brought about by coronavirus has not spared them either.
COVID-19 Pandemic and Gender Equality
The COVID-19 pandemic, which comes within the dispensation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), not only threatens to sabotage some of the gains made in advancing SDG 5 (Gender Equality), but goes along away to illustrate the importance of empowering women and girls.
In Kenya, cases of increased domestic and Sexual Violence are already being reported and dozens of families, where women are the sole breadwinners, are nearly at the verge of starvation because Mama can no longer step out to hustle and even when she attempts, business is bad and she will still go back home empty-handed.
Mother, 7 children Kicked Out By Landlord Over Rent Arrears As Nairobi Battles Corona Virus
Perhaps the story of, a middle-aged woman whose story went viral on social media a week ago after her landlord kicked her out over Sh 6,000 rent arrears and was forced to spend three nights in the cold with her seven children in Nairobi’s low-income Kayole estate, paints the picture of exactly the plight of the majority of women and children in poor households.
If well-wishers had not come to the aid of Mama Kayole, she and her children would have definitely spent a few more nights in the cold, exposing the family to both security and health threats.
In a moment of desperation, the mother would perhaps in the worst-case scenarios, just like many in the slums, force her older children to trade sex for money.
“I’m happy that this woman has gotten help and is no longer out in the cold but I hope the well-wishers included a family planning package in that shopping bag” one Mwas James tweeted.
Mwas’ sentiments were shared by several other Kenyans on Twitter (KOT) and looking at the picture of the woman and her seven kids, who follow each other in close succession, you would understand why.
While Mama Kayole was suffering due to lack of a month’s rent, another woman not just in the slums but even in the middle income and perhaps leafy suburbs is stuck in an abusive marriage because of lack of options; “where will she go” “how will the children eat and go to school” and another lot who are not on contraceptives are waking up every morning, praying that they did not conceive the night before.
A week ago, I drove into Kiambu Slums to deliver some sanitary kits in a church where we convene some teenage girls in the area for a mentorship programme over the school holidays and I bumped into a brother to one the girls on my way to the church.
I was shocked when I inquired from the young man on his sister’s whereabouts and he informed me that Janet (not her real name) left the house the previous day in the company of their mother’s male friend and is yet to return.
I nearly, wept, Janet is only 14 years old and just joined form one early this year. I had to follow the boy home to talk to the mother and all she could say, quite casually like it made it okey was that the daughter was not the one dating her male friend but her friend and Janet had only accompanied them.
“walikuwa wamenda tu out kidogo wabuiwe lunch alafu warudi lakini masaa ya curfew ikawazuia” / they had just stepped out to be bought lunch then they come back but they got caught up in the curfew hours and had to spend the night.
It was shortly after 4 pm and Janet, who left home the day before barely at noon, was nowhere to be seen.
Janet’s mother is a widow and has been raising her four children singlehandedly, she has been selling mitumba (second hand) clothes for a living but thanks to the Coronavirus crisis, her business has caved in.
Like many girls in the slums, Janet will probably end up pregnant and might not finish her high school education at least not at the same period with her peers if at all she doesn’t opt to undergo a back street abortion.
Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights
Planned Parenthood is quite essential not just for families but for development. An empowered woman will make better choices than the woman in Kayole and Janet’s mum and girls like Janet do not have to grow up believing that men are their ticket to a better life.
A woman with minimal childbearing responsibilities is also better placed to hustle and get productively immersed in the job market without having to subject her young children to premature “hustling” to supplement the family income.
In a country that is largely patriarchal but also where single parenting is increasing by the day, women empowerment is quite crucial.
An economically empowered woman is better placed to make and contribute informed household decisions and invest in her children’s welfare and education. She is also able to make her own reproductive health decisions.
Kenya is making some notable efforts in advancing Gender Equality and has some progressive laws in curbing sexual offenses and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), however teenage pregnancies continue to rise owing to high levels of poverty, early marriages among other things and the situation is bound to get worse at the end of the Coronavirus pandemic.
The high rate of unemployment in the developing countries notwithstanding, education has proven to be a great tool and key determinant in improving the welfare of families and alleviating poverty and we need more of it.
Policies are good and provide the framework for legislation but to achieve Gender Equality in the country, advance women empowerment and end ills such as teenage pregnancies, early marriages backstreet abortions, we need a shift in societal gender roles and perceptions.