She had no idea that the 19-year-old had started exchanging sex for money to help pay for the food for her three younger brothers and two cousins, who live together in a one-room house in a seaside slum. in Mombasa Kenya. When Bella came home with rice and other ingredients for dinner later in the day, she didn’t explain how she bought them.
“The pandemic broke the economy, especially for my region. So I had to help with expenses in one way or another, ”said Bella on WhatsApp. The teenager asked for her name to be changed to protect her identity.
Before the pandemic, Bella was a sophomore in a high school in the city, where she was an avid history student and enjoyed playing table tennis with friends during breaks between classes. But in March, with the spread of Covid-19, Kenya closed and so did schools.
Unable to continue her studies remotely due to a lack of electricity and internet access, and with her mother’s income from selling vegetables on the cut street, Bella started washing clothes to help supplement the family’s income.
When one of her much older clients pressured her for sex, saying she would pay 1,000 Kenyan shillings ($ 9) or 1,500 shillings ($ 13) for unprotected sex – triple what he paid to wash his clothes – she felt she couldn’t say no. After he found out she was pregnant, he disappeared.
“The pandemic played a very important role for me to achieve this pregnancy now, because if the pandemic was not here, I would be at school. How to wash clothes and all that stuff, meeting that man, it wouldn’t have happened, “said Bella, who is currently receiving social support and money transfers through ActionAid, an international campaign group. She complements this with odd jobs and laundries.
Now three months pregnant, Bella said she will not be able to resume her studies when schools in Kenya fully reopen in January – a friend of her mother, who was helping to pay her fees, withdrew her support.
For many girls, school is not only a place of learning and a path to a better future, adds Gianni, it is also a lifeline – offering vital nutrition services, menstrual hygiene management, sexual health information and social support.
The repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic on girls have been felt for generations.
“With the impact of Covid, we are seeing a very rapid and dramatic reversal of the progress we have made on gender equality,” said Julia Sánchez, ActionAid’s secretary general, highlighting issues on which advocates have made progress in recent years, such as ending with genital mutilation.
“Suddenly, it is as if we have all turned our backs and started walking in the opposite direction.”
Out of school and facing extreme economic insecurity, many of the girls interviewed said they were forced to assume a greater burden of unpaid care and domestic work, without access to life-saving sexual and reproductive health services – including birth control – – and were more vulnerable to gender-based violence.
Reported incidents of violence were particularly high in Kenya (76%), where young women interviewed repeatedly mentioned sexual abuse and early pregnancy. Echoing Bella’s story, several girls and young women who were out of school told researchers that they were forced to exchange sex for money out of financial desperation, ActionAid wrote.
Frustrated advocates say cuts in foreign aid from donor countries like the UK amid a wave of Covid-induced austerity measures will have devastating impacts on girls’ education and leave them without the safety net the school offers. They warn that failing to put women and girls at the center of recovery plans comes at a high cost to economic growth, especially when faced with one of the deepest recessions since World War II.
“Governments are under pressure because aid is going to be cut, because revenues are declining because of the economic effects of Covid and also because there are greater demands in the health sector,” said Lucia Fry, director of research and policy at the Malala Fund, said . “In some cases, not all, countries are in fact diverting funds from education at this time of great need.”
Various advocacy groups are calling on governments to maintain the priority they have given to education, while seeking the international community to provide fiscal stimulus in the form of debt relief and emergency aid. In the long run, they are considering reforms to things like the international tax system so that countries can keep more of the revenue they have for public services.
Meanwhile, teenagers like Bella are having to change their expectations for a future at school to one at home.
“It’s been so hard for me. I have no words to explain how I feel,” said Bella.
“Going back to school won’t be possible … and my baby is coming.”