‘Things are more chaotic in the wake of the COVID emergency. Women are more vulnerable so sexual violence increases,’ says campaigner
Educating the Children, a charity which supports young girls in the Masai community, raised fears that when schools finally reopen there will not be enough girls to go back to the classroom due to having been married off in the meantime.
Sonal Kadchha, the founder of the organisation, told The Independent forced marriages were surging in the Masai Mara, a massive national game reserve in south-west Kenya, during the public health crisis.
She said: “In the Masai Mara – the region where we work – most of the income comes from tourism. Masai used to trade cattle in markets that have been closed down due to Covid-19. People are no longer earning and they are starving.
“A way to make an income is to marry off daughters for a dowry. A typical dowry would be three cows, a sheep, a sack of sugar and some Masai blankets, which is equivalent to $1500 (£1116).”
Ms Kadchha said they were now seeing a sharp rise in teenage pregnancies and an increase in sexual abuse in the area. In Narok county – where Educating the Children work – the highest number of cases have been recorded in the whole country.
“Parents are out looking for work. Girls are left unsupervised. In some cases it is consensual. In some cases not. The sexual education bill is still in parliament. Things are more chaotic in the wake of the Covid emergency. Women are more vulnerable so sexual violence increases,” she explained.
Ms Kadchha said the acceleration of female genital mutilation (FGM) is fuelled by girls staying home due to school closures.✕
She added: “They are coming of age. Secondly, they are being married off. These marriages are happening more and more quickly. Thirdly, campaigners movements are restricted due to the coronavirus crisis so their work is restricted. FGM is a right of passage into womanhood before getting married. That is how it is traditionally treated.”
FGM, internationally recognised as a human rights violation, refers to any procedure that intentionally alters female genital organs for non-medical reasons. The procedure, which can cause a lifetime of severe health problems and pain, is often carried out without anaesthesia.
While Kenya passed a law outlawing FGM back in 2011, Ms Kadchha claims it still happens.
Figures show 152,000 reported teenage pregnancies in the first three months of the coronavirus crisis in Kenya – a 40 per cent increase.
Ms Kadchha argued the rise is “alarming” and the situation is “out of control” – adding they are fearful whether girls who are pregnant will return when schools finally reopen. While Kenya’s Minister of Education initially indicated schools will open their doors in January, last week the ministry said teachers should get ready to reopen in October.
“The coronavirus crisis has completely wiped off all the progress we have made advancing girls education and gender equality and we will need to double our efforts to get back to where we were,” Ms Kadchha added.
She cited the example of a 14-year-old girl she had come across whose father married her off to a 42-year-old man – adding that she was with her new husband for two nights before she was rescued by a Masai chief.
Ms Kadchha, who urged people to support their work by donating, also gave the example of a 13-year-old girl in a remote village who was helping her father look after his sheep who fell pregnant after having sex with a 19-year-old boy. The young girl is now very anxious about whether she will be allowed to return to school as the majority of girls who get pregnant drop out, she added.
Nelly Nasieku, the headteacher at Sekenani Girls High School in the Maasai Mara, which has been shut since mid March, meaning 400 girls are at home, told The Independent: “It is hard to stay in touch with the students since the villages are so spread out and remote. I have been trying to reach out to them and the messages I get from chiefs is that the girls are experiencing a lot of challenges at home at the moment. I have personally ensured that two aren’t married off.
“Two other cases of cutting (FGM) were reported by the girls and were rescued. We have no idea how many will make it back when Sekenani Girls High School does eventually open”.