By Julia Greenland – Founder, In Their Hands
Living in Africa, I have watched the explosion of COVID 19 in Asia, Europe and America like a horror movie. We watched as country after country introduced social distancing measures too late and thousands of cases emerge. In the back of my mind, I kept thinking – what will happen when it reaches us, with our small number of ventilators and millions without running water?
So, like everyone else, I have been relieved to see East Africa’s governments respond quickly – closing schools, limiting entry and restricting movement.
Yes, we are doing the right things, implementing preventative measures – but we must be prepared for the unexpected consequences of CODIV 19. After all this isn’t the first time African countries have faced widespread school closures and an economic slow down due to an outbreak.
In Sierra Leone, a UNDP study found a staggering 40-65% increase in teenage pregnancy rates during the 2015 Ebola crisis, when girls were similarly held home from school and the economy slowed. Overwhelmed health systems struggle to make reproductive health a priority. This means as Kenyans stare down the terrifying COVID 19, there is a spectre of losing a generation of our young people to an epidemic of unwanted pregnancies they are unable to prevent.
Today, nearly 1 in 5 Kenyan girls become mothers in their teenage years. Early childbearing has life-long impacts on the educational, economic and social trajectories of girls and their children. Reducing teenage pregnancy is among the Kenyan Ministry of Health’s highest priorities. But we are not helpless – new technology and renewed commitment to empowering young women mean that we have more tools than ever to educate young people and give them access to lifesaving products to protect themselves.
Over a decade of working in reproductive health, I have seen the same pattern repeat itself – teenage pregnancies skyrocket during school holidays, and even more so when girls struggle to have access to the cash they need for their basic needs. I think of one of the 19-year-old girls who responded to the midline survey of In Their Hands, a programme working to reduce teenage pregnancy in Kenya:
“That is how I got this baby, because I was so broke and not able to afford anything. Someone took advantage of my situation and I got pregnant… And you know going for family planning is expensive and you don’t have the money, so you end up pregnant”
How many of our girls are going to find themselves in a heart-breaking situation like this, while they are home from school for months and their parents are unable to provide for them through their daily hustles, which have been curtailed by the COVID 19?
Over the last two years, I have seen how digitally enabled programmes like In Their Hands, implemented in partnership with Triggerise, can support adolescents to take control of their reproductive health by putting information and services within their reach. Locally relevant, it is accessible on the most basic of phones and to non-phone users through a membership card. Even better, by reducing traditional reliance on person-to-person communication, mobile technology can allow girls to learn about their risks, make decisions and reach services while minimizing their risk of exposure. In just 3 years, this programme has allowed over 400,000 girls have been able to access free contraceptive and HIV services in Kenya, contributing to the ambitious goals of the Ministry of Health.
The government of Kenya should take immediate measures to ensure adolescent girls are flagged as a vulnerable group bearing high risk implications resulting from the COVID 19 crisis. If we do not prioritize their needs, we will find ourselves in the midst of a new epidemic.