The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on global gender equality – As Equals

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She had no idea that the 19-year-old had begun exchanging sex for cash in order to help pay for food for her three younger siblings and two cousins, who live together in a one-room house in a waterfront slum community in Mombasa, Kenya. When Bella came home with rice and other ingredients for dinner at the end of the day, she didn’t explain how she had bought them.

“The pandemic broke down the economy, especially for my area. So I had to help in one way or another with expenses,” said Bella over WhatsApp. The teen asked that her name be changed to protect her identity.

Before the pandemic, Bella was a sophomore at a high school in the city, where she was an avid history student and enjoyed playing table tennis with friends during breaks between classes. But in March, as Covid-19 spread, Kenya shut down and so did the schools.

Unable to continue her studies remotely due to a lack of electricity and internet access, and with her mother’s income from selling vegetables on the street slashed, Bella began washing clothes to help supplement the family’s income.

“God, that day, my mom almost killed me. My mom was so furious with me, she beat me. I don’t want to talk about it. She didn’t know that I was having an affair with that man.”

Bella


When one of her customers who was much older pressured her for sex, saying he would pay 1,000 Kenyan shillings ($9) or 1,500 shillings ($13) for unprotected sex — triple what he was paying her for doing his laundry — she felt like she couldn’t say no. After he found out she was pregnant, he disappeared.

“The pandemic played the biggest role in me getting this pregnancy right now, because if the pandemic was not here, I would have been in school. Like this washing clothes, and all that stuff, meeting that man, it wouldn’t have happened,” said Bella, who is currently receiving social support and cash transfers through ActionAid, an international campaign group. She supplements this with odd jobs and laundry work.

Now three months pregnant, Bella said she won’t be able to resume her education when Kenya’s schools fully reopen in January — a friend of her mother’s, who had been helping to pay her fees, withdrew her support.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) estimates that nearly 24 million children and adolescents, including 11 million girls and young women like Bella, may drop out of education next year due to the pandemic’s economic impact alone (130 million girls were already out of school, according to the agency). That reality not only threatens to roll back decades of progress made toward gender equality, but also puts girls around the globe at risk of child labor, teen pregnancy, forced marriage and violence, experts say.
“It’s a kind of vicious cycle,” said Stefania Giannini, UNESCO’s assistant director-general for education, noting that girls who have become pregnant during lockdowns are not only less likely to return to school, policies and practices in some countries specifically prohibit their participation in education. Adolescent pregnancy during the pandemic threatens to block one million girls from education just in sub-Saharan Africa, according to a report by World Vision, a member of UNESCO’s Covid-19 Global Education Coalition.

For many girls, school is not only a place of learning and a pathway to a brighter future, Gianni adds, it’s also a lifeline — offering vital nutrition services, menstrual hygiene management, sexual health information and social support.

Previous crises have proven that girls are the first to be pulled from the classroom and the last to return. When the Ebola outbreak prompted school closures in West Africa from 2014 to 2016, girls faced increased poverty, child labor and teen pregnancy, preventing them in some cases from resuming their studies, reports by UNICEF, Save the Children and UNDP have shown.
In Sierra Leone, teen pregnancy more than doubled to 14,000, according to UNICEF. And many girls in the country never returned to the classroom, partly because of a recently overturned policy barring pregnant girls from going to school, Plan International reported. Enrollment dropped by 16 percentage points in Sierra Leone communities most impacted, per a working paper published by World Bank.
Using data on school dropouts from the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, the Malala Fund estimated that 20 million more secondary school-aged girls could remain out of the classroom long after the coronavirus pandemic has passed.

“The pandemic played the biggest role in me getting this pregnancy right now, because if the pandemic was not here, I would have been in school. Meeting that man, it wouldn’t have happened like at all.”

Bella

The repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic on girls could be felt for generations.

Earlier this year, UNFPA projected that lockdowns lasting at least six months could lead to an estimated 7 million additional unintended pregnancies and 31 million cases of gender-based violence, as well as 13 million child marriages and 2 million female genital mutilation cases over the next decade.
Covid-19 will also push 47 million more women and girls into poverty, according to an analysis commissioned by UN Women and UNDP, which estimates that around 435 million women and girls will be living on less than $1.90 a day by 2021. According to the report, the number of women and girls living in extreme poverty won’t return to pre-pandemic levels until 2030.

“With the impact of Covid we’re seeing a very quick and dramatic retreat of the progress we’ve made on gender equality,” Julia Sánchez, secretary general of ActionAid, said, highlight issues where advocates have made strides in recent years, like in putting a stop to genital mutilation.

“All of a sudden it’s like we’ve all turned our backs and we’re starting to walk in the opposite direction.”

In an ActionAid survey of 1,219 women mostly aged 18 to 30 in urban areas of India, Ghana, Kenya and South Africa, only about 22% of those who were studying said they were able to continue their education remotely. But the survey was limited by the fact that young women were interviewed based on their willingness and availability to respond — only about 25% were currently in some form of education.

Out of school and facing extreme economic insecurity, many of the girls surveyed said they were forced to take on a bigger burden of unpaid care and domestic work, found themselves unable to access life-saving sexual health and reproductive services — including birth control — and were more vulnerable to gender-based violence.

Reported incidents of violence were particularly high in Kenya (76%), where young women surveyed repeatedly mentioned sexual abuse and early pregnancies. Echoing Bella’s story, several girls and young women who were out of school told surveyors they were forced to exchange sex for money out of financial desperation, ActionAid wrote.

“There are a lot of girls in my area who are going through the same situation. As for my situation, now I am just hoping God helps me through this, and I come out of this safe.”

Bella


Like many other countries on the African continent, Kenya has committed to closing the gap on exclusion in education, providing all children access by 2030. But the scattershot approach to tackling teen pregnancy — an issue before the pandemic hit — has been criticized by campaign groups like Human Rights Watch. In July, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta ordered an investigation into rising reports of violence against women and girls, noting that teen pregnancies had escalated during the pandemic.

Frustrated advocates say cuts to foreign aid by donor countries, like the United Kingdom, amid a wave of Covid-induced austerity measures will have devastating impacts on girls’ education and leave them without the safety net that school offers. They warn that failing to place women and girls at the center of recovery plans comes at a steep cost to economic growth, especially when faced with one of the deepest recessions since World War II.

A World Bank report, released in partnership with the Malala Fund in 2018, showed that limited educational opportunities for women and girls who complete secondary school could cost the global economy between $15 trillion and $30 trillion.

“Governments are under the squeeze because aid is going to be cut, because revenues are going down because of the economic effects of Covid, and also because there are greater demands in the health sector,” Lucia Fry, director of research and policy at the Malala Fund, said. “In some cases, not all, countries are actually diverting funds away from education at this time of great need.”

A number of advocacy groups are calling on governments to maintain the priority that they’ve given to education, while simultaneously looking to the international community to provide fiscal stimulus in the form of debt relief and emergency aid. Longer term, they’re looking at reforms in things like the international tax system so that countries can keep more of the revenues that they have for public services.

In the meantime, teenagers like Bella are having to shift their expectations from a future in school to one at home.

“It has been so hard for me. I lack words to explain how I feel,” Bella said.

“Going back to school won’t be possible … and my baby’s coming soon.”


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