The now-famous phrase ‘the new normal’ brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic has orchestrated the fall, survival, and recovery of different economies around the world. As countries purpose to survive and bounce back, one wonders whether the effects of the lockdown on families can ever be reversed.
History has shown us time and again that periods of economic uncertainty and stress, civil unrest, reduced mobility and disaster are linked to a myriad of risk factors for increased sexual violence against women and children. The Covid-19 pandemic has proven to be no exception.
Gender-Based Violence is one of the most persistent violations of human rights across the globe and has been reported to be much higher within marginalized populations. Before lockdowns were being implemented around the world, 243 million women had been reported to have experienced sexual or physical violence by a partner, according to research by UN Women in 2019. The findings disclose that 15 million adolescent girls between the ages of 15-19 worldwide had experienced forced sex and 137 women were killed by a family member every day. To bring the issue home, in research done in Kenya, it was reported that sexual harassment was affecting 19% and 16% of the population in urban and rural homes respectively since the pandemic began.
The lockdown fueled Gender-Based Violence within families so much so that UN Women dubbed it ‘The Shadow Pandemic’ in 2020. As the world pays attention and directs its funds to the public health crisis, some undesirable byproducts of the pandemic are getting little to no attention thus begging the question, will the economy really recover? Through a press statement released in an attempt to push back against Gender-Based Violence, the Government of Kenya stated that between January and December 2020 a total of 5,009 cases were recorded through the national GBV toll-free helpline, showing an increase of 1,411 as per 2019 records. Counties that reported the highest numbers in GBV cases included Nairobi, Kakamega, Nakuru, and Kiambu.
As the government continues to open up the economy, the most vulnerable in society are still left unarmed and unprepared for a probable third wave. Schools have reopened and students are expected to prepare for exams. According to Global Citizen, 15 million children were expected to return to school in September 2020, yet it was reported that thousands of children did not make it back to school, a majority of them being girls. The numbers are equally grim in Kenya.
For instance, Ruth Koech, Nandi County’s County Executive Committee Member for Health stated that 289 girls aged between 10 and 14 years old got pregnant between January and September last year in the region, while another 5,717 aged between 15 and 19 got pregnant during the same period of school closure. Still, in the same county, a report from the health department indicated that 6,006 girls did not report back to school due to teen pregnancy.
The cycle of girls and women being disadvantaged continues to be felt and in turn, a slowdown will be seen in achieving sustainable development goals in Kenya and elsewhere, since leaving girls and women behind becomes costly to society in general in the long run.
Bring Gender-Based Violence into the picture and you know we’re looking at a time bomb.
Unfortunately, the fight against Gender-Based Violence and the overall conversation around empowering the girl child to prevent early pregnancies and allow those who fall into the misfortune a pass back into the education system are oftentimes portrayed as a battle of sexes, yet the situation can only be remedied by acknowledging that these are societal causes that need collective action and solidarity. We all need to speak up in support of victims, hold offenders accountable and educate the masses on the need for systemic shifts to actualize gender equality.
Hence, the call to action falls on every person regardless of age, gender, affluence, or influence. In no time, all efforts that have been put to empower disenfranchised girls and women may chip away due to the pandemic – including economic empowerment efforts – taking beneficiaries a few steps back if not back to ground zero. This, therefore, calls for a need to address questions of sustainability, factoring in wild cards such as the Covid-19 pandemic and its ramifications.
Long term, a transformative education system among other systemic shifts remain paramount in changing narratives around Gender-Based Violence, this coupled with the intervention to equip not only women but society at large with skills to make informed decisions about their health and the economic benefits of elevating everybody within the community, through education and other means which will give them better chances at making a way for themselves in the world.
In the spirit of starting early, there is a critical need in engaging boys early in order to change patriarchal norms which are designed to work against girls and women. To make this a success, both men and women must step forward and lead these conversations about the paradigm shift.
But as these get underway, interventions in support of Gender-Based Violence survivors and a return to school formula for girls who have fallen victim to teen pregnancy should be escalated and strengthened, even if as a stop-gap measure. As offenders face the full force of the law, the media too should play a leading role in changing narratives by handling their messaging around Gender-Based Violence with care, nuance and intentionality, resisting the urge to shame victims.
Kenya must protect and empower its girls and women to secure its future.