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Opinion | How Covid-19’s Social Effects Hurt Girls in Kenya

Kenya, in fact, has outlawed child marriage and genital cutting. But while President Uhuru Kenyatta has pledged to eradicate child marriage by the end of this year and cutting by 2022, turning aspirational statements into real change is difficult work, even without a pandemic.

Girls in nations that have not taken such steps have likely fared far worse.

Yet Mr. Kenyatta seemed to undercut his pledge in July by cracking down on clinics offering contraceptives to underage girls, saying the practice encouraged promiscuity. Experts worry that as more girls become pregnant, their fears of the social and economic consequences of revealing their pregnancy, combined with clinic closures and the disruptions of the supply of abortion pills, will lead to an escalation in unsafe, makeshift abortions.

In the best of times, girls still lag in pastoral communities in Kenya when it comes to the keys to upward mobility, such as access to secondary education, and are among the last to receive resources. For millions of girls forced to marry and give birth during this pandemic, how do we salvage their rights to safety, health and education?

At minimum, girls who survive these traumas need financial support, reproductive and mental health care, child care and the resources to return to school. The authorities must prosecute perpetrators. Chiefs and other authorities should aid girls in annulling their marriages. In the Dedza District of Malawi, the paramount chief, Theresa Kachindamoto, told me she had annulled about 2,549 child marriages over the years.

More global and local investment is critical to prevent further harm to vulnerable girls around the world, including rigorous accountability mechanisms and enforcement of policies. To lead by example and reinforce a commitment to protecting girls, the United States must also bring its domestic laws in sync with its global rhetoric by restoring a federal ban on genital cutting and enacting one on child marriage.

These are critical concerns for girls like Jacinta who hoped for, and deserved, so much more.

“I really wanted to go to school,” she said softly. “I really wanted to become a teacher.”

Stephanie Sinclair, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist, is the founder and executive director of the nonprofit organization Too Young to Wed. Jeremiah Kipainoi is a photographer and videographer and the host of the podcast “End F.G.M.” Moses Letitoyia, Nancy Leaduma and Elina Lanyasunya contributed translation and reporting. The Wallace Global Fund provided support for this project.

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