By Carolyne Ajema, Serah Nduta & Lindsay Bigda
The onset of COVID-19 in Kenya saw the government roll out measures to curb its spread, including restricted movements, school closures, and reduced working hours. Though critical to safeguard and protect the citizenry from infection, these measures have resulted in new challenges.
COVID-19 presents multiple health and wellbeing (both psychosocial and physical) risks to adolescents. According to Education Cannot Wait, ‘Young and adolescent girls are twice as likely to be out of school in crises and face greater barriers to education and vulnerabilities such as gender-based violence when not in school.’ While the national government was keen on preventing the disease spread, government and stakeholders across the various sectors need to do more work to address the increase in risks to other health and social concerns among adolescents and young girls.
Kenya, like most countries, has not put in place measures necessary for the protection of children as outlined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. As a result, as the pandemic rages on, girls continue to find themselves in a precarious state, with risks of experiencing abuse exacerbated by their caregiver’s loss of jobs/livelihoods, reduced work hours, and increased unsupervised time among children. Consequently, some adolescents have become pregnant, were married off, entered into unpaid care labor markets, become orphans, or have had a shift in priorities from education to survival.
The lack of deliberate investments targeting adolescents in Kenya does translate into adverse effects on their health and learning, such as:
Increased risk to sexual abuse and exploitation due to restricted movements and school closures: The changes in the school calendars did result in increased unsupervised time by trusted caregivers, experiences or witnessing of domestic violence, and involvement in transactional sex to help sustain livelihoods. Some girls ventured into income-generating activities, further increasing their exposure to sexual exploitation and abuse. Not all girls reported back to school for various reasons, including pregnancies and relocating to other areas to stay away from their abusers. School closures also exposed girls to harmful traditional practices such as Female Genital Mutilation(FGM) and Early/Forced child marriages. In the months preceding the January 2021 school resumption, media reports highlighted an increase in pregnancies among teens and adolescents, resulting in blame games. Parents blamed the government for the prolonged school closure, while the government blamed parents for abdicating their nurturing and mentoring roles. Boys were also affected.
Exposure to technology-facilitated GBV: At the onset of the pandemic, there were no measures put in place to protect adolescent girls and boys from online sexual abuse and sexual exploitation. The transition to digital learning platforms increased unsupervised internet use and amplified the learners’ exposure to sexual abuse and access to misinformation on sexual and reproductive health (SRH). Online sexual abuse does have severe impacts–psychological, social, and reproductive health–on victims. The lack of reporting structures or collaborative evidence for these forms of abuse compounds the problem, especially for adolescents who endure lifelong trauma.
‘Unsafe’ school environments: The Ministry of Health focused more on all learners returning to school, without clear reflections on the challenges and diversities among the learners. Consequently, some schools experienced violence and unrest associated with stress, drug use, and substance abuse during school closures. School calendar disruptions did result in increased mental anguish among candidates and dissociative behaviors. Most stakeholders did overlook the mental impact of COVID-19 and the response measures put in place on teens and adolescents. To the education officials, focus on school resumption by pregnant and lactating adolescents seemed more of a priority than establishing the extent to which the learning environments would expose these teens and adolescents to further vulnerability.
In hindsight, these restrive measures by the government and the anxiety experienced by adolescents may have contributed to the school related-unrests, suicide, school dropouts, and child marriages, impacting adolescents and teens from a social, educational, and health perspective.
For some adolescents, their future educational attainment seems ‘bleak.’ A siloed approach to the plight of these adolescents is unwarranted.
Hence the call for an intersectional approach.
It is not prudent to promote positive educational outcomes among adolescents while ignoring their health and mental status. The reverse is also true.
As we work towards post -COVID recovery efforts, stakeholders within and beyond the education sector should institute mechanisms to make schools safe environments for all learners.
- Building the capacity of teachers to address the mental health needs of students
- Reviewing the return to school policy to ensure a supportive community-wide enabling and non-judgmental environment for pregnant adolescents and nursing mothers to return to school without stigmatization
- Establishing support systems for the teachers, some of who could be experiencing strain-mental, relational, and financial as a result of COVID-19
- Engaging teachers to identify context-specific methods to identify and address challenges from COVID-19
- Empowering communities with age-appropriate information on sex, GBV, SRH, and the importance of child protection mechanisms
- Providing age-appropriate information to adolescents on loss and grief- as we know some have lost their loved ones during this pandemic
- Develop national frameworks for digital safety among adolescents
Adolescent-centered responses are paramount in mitigating the impact the pandemic has had on girls’ lives across all fronts. Hence, there is a need for concerted efforts towards designing and institutionalizing measures that promote adolescent health and wellbeing to ensure that none is left behind.