As governments across the globe intensify measures to fight COVID-19 pandemic, I was thrilled to see 3 teenage girls from Liberia boldly leading and establishing an initiative known as “Girls Ending Covid-19” to sensitize the community on the symptoms and preventive measures from the deadly virus. Speaking to Front Page Africa, Michelle Gwaikolo who is 17 years old and the founder of “Girls Ending Covid-19 “said that “We are using the government-mandated school break to join the global effort to combat the 2019 Novel Coronavirus Pandemic. Knowing that Liberia has three confirmed cases does not give us peace; we are working to stop the spread,”. But are these girls safe in their community?
In times of crisis, many times the needs of girls are ignored particularly the needs of teenage girls. Research shows that crisis and pandemics such as COVID-19 pandemic exacerbate gender inequality. Policy makers and policy influencers in Africa need to know that teenage girls are severely hit by the effects of such pandemics and it is necessary to consider girls while formulating and implementing mitigating measures. Policy makers must recognise and prioritise the needs of girls particularly teenage girls who are often ignored, tokenized, silenced and invisibilized during pandemics.
Most governments have temporarily closed educational institutions in an attempt to contain the spread of COVID-19 pandemic. According to UNESCO, it is estimated that the closure is impacting over 89% of the student population globally with girls being hit the hardest. In many countries, schools offer a safe refuge to teenage girls. They act as shelters to girls from physical and emotional abusive households, malnutrition, child labour and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Now that the schools are closed unexpectedly, this poses a new reality to thousands of teenage girls in Africa. Many girls have parents/guardians who are struggling to put food on the table. The implication is that teenage girls will be forced to ‘sell’ sex to supplement the family income. In addition, teenage girls at home are at a high risk of sexual and domestic abuse by their “loved ones” and neighbors taking advantage of the pandemic.
There are fears that the rate of teenage pregnancy will increase significantly after this COVID-19 pandemic. In previous pandemics such as Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone, teenage pregnancy increased by up to 65% in some communities. Consequently, many of these girls may never go back to school due to the fact that most African governments still prevent teenage mothers from going back to school. If policy makers fail to consider the lives of millions of teenage girls who are now at home, the future of these girls is at risk of taking a devastating trajectory. To prevent this, it is necessary that governments ensure that the girls live a dignified life during these tough times. There is a need to offer hotlines where girls can report any cases of violations or harassment to the authorities in the community. This is also an opportune moment to offer civic education, to monitor, document, follow-up and follow-through cases of domestic violence, sexual violations, FGM, child labour and mental health.
Oftentimes adults assume that mental health is a non-issue for girls. However, teenage girls experience anxiety, stress and depression emanating from the toxic environments they live in. For example, during this period of #StayAtHome #LockDown #Curfew, girls have no choice but to live under the same roof with violent family members. Many adolescent girls will also start their menstrual periods in this season and many will lack proper menstrual products and support systems from those around them. For teenage girls from poor families it means that they cannot afford to buy menstrual products because they have to choose between a meal and the menstrual products.
For thousands of girls living in urban informal settlements where water, sanitation and hygiene are a major problem, it is devastating not having basic preventive and protective necessities. For girls who are refugees, internally displaced and living in camps, this situation is a double-edged sword. Many teenage girls are now doing unpaid care work while at home and their education has come to a standstill. Many families lack access to electricity, radio, television, smartphones and internet that could offer alternative learning channels to ensure girls continue with their education. The collapsing economies in many countries means that thousands of girls might find difficulties going back to school when this pandemic ends.
As pan-African feminists, continue to push for a #DignifiedResponse, all governments response measures must ensure girls are protected and safe in and out of their homes. It is extremely horrifying to see the number of reported violations happening to girls as young as 3 years across Africa. On Monday, 5th April 2020, a 14-year old girl was raped to death in South Africa during the lockdown period yet there are police on patrol in the streets to enforce the lockdown. Protection of all girls in Africa is a right that must be respected. Girls want to be safe. Girls want justice. I’m deeply convinced that African nations will only overcome COVID-19 pandemic effectively when the measures put in place are inclusive to the needs and concerns of all girls and women. Yes, all African states need to issue gender supportive and responsive directives ordering the respect of the rights and dignity of all girls. They should also remain alert and vigilant to all cases of abuse to girls and reinforce existing social protection measures to protect all girls, everywhere, all the time.
Reflections by Esther Nyawira, Project Lead for Young Women and Teenage Girls, FEMNET