Why Kenya’s response to COVID-19 needs to prioritise the rights of women and girls

A section of students from Logorate Primary School.

Why Kenya’s response to COVID-19 needs to prioritise the rights of women and girls

COVID-19 is an unprecedented pandemic in scope and impact. Every facet of human life bears the strain, loss and transformation brought on by the pervasive nature of this global emergency.

Experiences of women and girls are worse in the current situation. The pre-existing inequalities, discrimination and marginalization they face are exacerbated during this time, especially here in Kenya where employment in the service industry across households, human health and social work thrives on 60.6 per cent and 57.7 per cent of women’s labour output.

Women and girls cannot live fulfilled lives if they cannot enjoy their right to privacy, gender identity, choosing partners, pleasure, marriage, and children. They are exposed to fragility when they cannot access integrated services covering contraception, safe abortion, menstrual hygiene, maternal and child health, infertility, STIs, HIV and cancers.

An estimated 7 million unintended pregnancies are expected to occur globally if the lockdown continues for 6 months and there are major service disruptions, according to UNFPA. Evidence shows that many of these pregnancies will end in an unsafe abortion.

Violence and harmful practices such as female genital mutilation and child marriage hurt and dehumanize women and girls whet they are accepted as societal norms. A significant 21 per cent of women in Kenya aged 15-49 have been subjected to FGM. And globally, for every 3 months the lockdown continues, an additional 15 million additional cases of gender-based violence are expected.

The measures in place that mitigate the multi-layered repercussions of COVID-19 should not permit denial of women’s right of choice, either by omission or commission. Covid-19 lockdowns should not lock out women’s sexual and reproductive health rights, including family planning and pregnancy management options.

Responding to COVID-19 should amplify the obligation to ensure women and girls retain bodily autonomy and choice. Policy and administrative measures should promote and facilitate women and girls to realize their relationship aspirations in an environment that treasures freedom and safety. Hard-won gains for bodily autonomy and choice that have been made over the past decades should inform every decision and action in the national COVID-19 response.

Women are not homogenous. Yet all deserve and are entitled to the right to make pertinent decisions about their bodies, their lives and future. The right to decide is valid for young and elderly women, rural and urban women, women in homes and those in quarantine and isolation facilities, women with disabilities, women living with HIV, and women in the informal sector.

The COVID-19 predicament has many fundamental lessons that illuminate our understanding and appreciation of women’s contribution to society. Women contribute 70 per cent of frontline workers in the health sector that is at the core of the COVID-19 response and are the mainstay of homes at this moment when everyone is working and schooling from home

Deliberately and strategically, we must commit to recalibrate and enhance the capacity of women and girls to lead dignified lives despite the constraints of COVID-19. The letter and spirit of the Kenyan Constitution resonates with women’s access to the highest standard of health.

The ICPD25 Nairobi Summit reiterated the centrality of women and girls in decision making. Kenya’s commitment to “end gender and other forms of discrimination by 2030 through enforcing the anti-discrimination laws and providing adequate budgetary allocations to institutions mandated to promote gender equality, equity and empowerment of women and girls” should pass the test of implementation during the Covid-19 response.

We call upon all actors to stand up and speak out for the rights of women and girls, bearing in mind their inherent and rich diversities. Our voices must reverberate collectively in all spaces mobilized for the COVID-19 response. Working together we will advance the right of girls and women everywhere to decide.

The role of Parliament will continue to be leveraged (and duly supported) to provide strategic oversight and ensure accountability by the diverse national actors, whose response programmes and policies will be purposely scrutinized to ensure that foregoing rights are consciously protected. Indeed, national and county level legislative organs should allocate adequate resources and hold various institutions accountable for women’s health.

UNFPA and the SheDecides movement in Kenya share the vision of a world where every girl and woman can decide what to do with her body, with her life and with her future. Without question! To the young people, we echo your clarion call: “MY BODY, MY LIFE, MY WORLD!”

By Ademola Olajide: The author is the Representative, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Kenya

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