Around the world, schooling has been disrupted for months; social distancing has caused classrooms to go online, with students studying from home. For some, learning has gone digital, throwing families into relative chaos. But what happens when you have limited or no access to electricity, technology or the internet? Or perhaps the system doesn’t know how to deal with the health, economic and logistical challenges a pandemic presents?
Kenya’s solution was to cancel all primary and secondary exams and shut schools completely, cancelling school for 18 million students until 2021. All going well, next year, after almost a year out of school, students will have to repeat the grades they left. That is, of course, if they make it back to school.
What might have at first been an attempt, in a time of unequal access, to make schooling fair for the greater number of students, is shaping up to make educational and life inequality much worse. While it’s true that for the vast majority of poor and rural households – without television, laptops, the internet, or even electricity – remote learning wasn’t a real option; the alternative to attending school puts them at a greater disadvantage.
The gap that school closures creates is filled with other activities as school-aged children try to fill in the time, as parents start to rely on children to help with everyday chores and work, and as parents decide on the next step for their children in life. The vacuum of time left by closures and lack of study options is most likely filled with menial tasks like collecting wood and water, helping the parents work to earn money, or sending them away to be married. Whatever gains were made in preventing child labour and marriage are slowly being undone, particularly as perpetrators aren’t being reported during social isolation.
Although child marriage is illegal, the practice is deeply embedded in the culture, especially in remote areas. The promise of future opportunities and higher income for girls through study has been one of the key resources in preventing the practice. Parents, who would otherwise have waited until their child graduated from high school, have now decided that without the complication of school absence, they can arrange their girls to marry (frequently to much older men). For them, it is the best solution to give their child’s life purpose, stop them from being idle and provide much needed income through the ‘bride price’ to the bride’s family.
An insidious first step before girls are married, however is for girls to be cut in a practice known as FGM (Female Genital Mutilation). Also illegal, though commonly practiced, FGM is the ritual for girls to have the outer layers of their genitals cut by elders, without anaesthetic. Often girls are considered unmarriageable without it. Because of the time it takes for this to take place and heal, school was also a barrier for the practice as school breaks were too short and teachers would notice and notify authorities. The UN has reported a significant increase in FGM during the pandemic.
Compounding an already growing set of tragic circumstances for young girls, there is a reported increase in the rate of teenage pregnancies, partly as a result of the increase in child marriage, but also partly due to the circumstances that a crisis brings. Crisis situations are known to increase adolescent girls’ risk of sexual abuse, exploitation, gender-based violence (GBV), and unwanted pregnancies. Triggers like isolation and home confinement, loss of access to services including health and medications, loss of income, unstable housing on top of closed schools, have instigated increased GBV and sexual abuse. Shelters that were open to girls and women at high risk of violence and abuse have also been shut (as a social distancing measure), which much of the time means going back to a dangerous home situation.
For years, our partner, the Anglican Church of Kenya (ACK) at Mt Kenya West, has been working with community leaders and members to tackle the ongoing and deeply cultural aspects of women’s and girl’s rights, including access to education for girls, and GBV.
Within schools, through the Imarisha Maisha: Safe and Resilient Communities program, ACK has been training teachers in child rights and guidance counselling. Teachers are trained in how to identify children at risk, and work with community leaders to address issues, particularly when they relate to child marriage and teenage pregnancy. Without the protection mechanisms that the school guidance counsellors are trained in, there is a much higher risk of abuses going undiscovered. Read more about this work here.
Also a major part of the GBV prevention strategy is the Nyumba Kumi, volunteer community leaders, who have been trained in, and are now educating the communities about the rights of women, girls and children. The Nyumba Kumi have done a lot of work in fighting gender-based violence, but this too has been a greater issue during COVID. Under lockdown in confined spaces, with the mounting pressure of household financial difficulties, and without the same support and service networks usually available, domestic violence has risen, and women have fewer places to turn.
The Nyumba Kumi however are not deterred, and they continue working hard to create harmony in the communities they are a part of and serve. ACK has even been named as the referral point for gender-based violence cases by the Kenyan Government’s National Gender Commission. The program has also established and trained community-based child protections committees. In the absence of the layer of protection schools provide, these committees are now a vital response mechanism and have much to achieve.
For our partner, ACK, and their dedicated Nyumba Kumis, the work continues through the pandemic and remains more important than ever.
The Imarisha Maisha program in Kenya is supported by the Australian Government and donations from the Australian public though the Australian NGO Cooperation Program (ANCP). We are proud to partner with the Australian Government in delivering this program supporting the rights of women and girls.
- Read more about how you can help support women and girls during COVID-19 through our Christmas Appeal.
- Read more about our COVID-19 work here.
- Read more about the progress of COVID-19 work in Kenya and Mozambique here.
 Centre for Global Development, A Case for Abolishing High-Stakes Exams – This Year and Every Year, https://www.cgdev.org/blog/case-abolishing-high-stakes-exams-year-and-every-year, 2020
 New York Times, Kenya’s unusual solution to the School Problem: Cancel the Year and Start Over, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/05/world/africa/Kenya-cancels-school-year-coronavirus.html, 2020
 Aljazeera, ‘It ruined my life’: School closures in Kenya lead to rise in FGM, https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2020/09/18/it-ruined-my-life-school-closures-in-kenya-lead-to-rise-in-fgm/, 2020
 Middleberg, A., Submission to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, its Causes and Consequences, https://www.annemariemiddelburg.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Submission-Middelburg-UN-Special-Rapporteur-on-VAW_30_June_2020.pdf, 2020
 Devex, Dramatic rise in Kenya early pregnancies amid school closures, IRC data suggests, https://www.devex.com/news/dramatic-rise-in-kenya-early-pregnancies-amid-school-closures-irc-data-suggests-97921, 2020
 Middleberg, A.