The Lost Girls of Covid
The extent of the indirect damage Covid has brought is difficult to measure.
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- At the girls’ rescue house down the quiet end of a dusty road in Narok County, Kenya, there are girls who are friends, and then there are Purity and Lucy. Sisters, they both say. Purity is 17; Lucy, 19. Where Purity is soft-spoken and shy, Lucy is gregarious and funny, with expressive eyebrows and a sardonic affect. When she smiles—and she smiles a lot—the corners of her mouth turn almost vertical, and her cheeks, still freckled with teenage acne, go full and flush. Purity is slender as tall grass, with glowing skin and a gap in her lower teeth that she habitually pokes her tongue through. Both grew up in traditional Masai communities, in different areas that are within striking distance of Masai Mara National Reserve, a game park that, in normal times, draws hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. Neither one’s parents went to school; Purity and Lucy were set to be among the first generation of girls in their communities to graduate from high school, maybe even from college.
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Lucy wants to study the moon and become an astronaut. Purity has dreams, too, but she doesn’t talk about them much anymore. Both girls left their homes years ago, fleeing forced marriages and, for Lucy, the genital mutilation that traditionally precedes matrimony in their communities. Purity was cut when she was 10. (For privacy reasons, I’m identifying them and some others in the story only by first name or a pseudonym.)
When Covid-19 led the Kenyan government to shutter schools and ban large gatherings, the operators of the rescue house—a nonprofit shelter that offers girls a base where they can live and from which they can go to school—had little choice but to comply. The risk that a deadly disease could rip through the crowded dormitories and infect scores of girls with little access to health care was too high to do otherwise. The operators secured promises from the girls’ families that they would be treated well and sent them home. Purity and Lucy left in March 2020, returning to homes where their fathers drank heavily, often became violent, and routinely kicked them out, forcing the girls to sleep in the bush. Each felt lucky when a man from the community approached her, offering a little food, shelter, and money. Almost a year after leaving the rescue house, Purity and Lucy returned, both just weeks away from giving birth.
Lucy hoped she could leave her baby with her mother and continue going to school. Purity didn’t have a relative who could help, but she was determined to give her child resources and an education she hadn’t had. “I don’t want him or her to be like me,” she says. So she’d need to make money. Her plan was to become a tailor; she’d start by sewing tidy school uniforms for other people’s children.
Kenya, like most countries in sub-Saharan Africa, has so far been spared the worst of Covid. As of Jan. 3, the country of about 55 million people had seen more than 285,000 confirmed cases and nearly 5,400 deaths. These numbers are almost certainly undercounted, but for comparison, Spain, with about 47 million people, had recorded more than 6 million Covid cases and nearly 90,000 deaths. The reasons for the discrepancy aren’t fully understood, but age seems to be a significant factor: The median Kenyan is 20 years old, while the median Spaniard is almost 44. Kenyans are also less likely to suffer from other Covid risk factors, such as cancer, diabetes, or respiratory illness. The country is among the least urbanized in the world, decreasing the potential for close-quarters transmission, and its weather allows people to spend more time outside, where the risk of infection is lower.
On the other hand, more than a third of Kenyans live in poverty, and the country has a fragile health-care system that could easily be overwhelmed by the virus. That led the government to proceed with abundant caution, closing schools from March 2020 through January 2021 and instituting a series of strict curfews, international travel bans, and county-specific lockdowns. The measures helped keep infection rates low, but they brought their own perils, including widespread food insecurity, rampant domestic violence, and surging unemployment. The disruptions hit women harder than men, and girls harder than boys.
“Covid was the most difficult thing we had to face and that we still face,” says Kakenya Ntaiya, an educator who grew up in a Masai community and was engaged by the time she was 5 years old. Decades ago, Ntaiya persuaded her father to let her defer her engagement and continue her schooling, eventually going to college in the U.S. When she returned to Kenya, she started a nongovernmental organization called Kakenya’s Dream, which runs a boarding school for at-risk Masai girls, similar to the school Purity and Lucy attend.
“For the first time, our students were home for nine months or more without that safe space,” Ntaiya says. “When you look at a girl going from having a place where she can jump rope and play and her only responsibility is to go to class, to back home where she’s now responsible for cooking for the others, taking care of the family, collecting firewood, getting water, and in the evening she doesn’t have her own space, there’s a bedroom with the little siblings, she’s not invited to sit in the big house, which is the father’s house, she’s in the kitchen—that was really harsh.”
The extent of the indirect damage Covid has brought is difficult to measure. What’s known so far, though, suggests that it could outweigh the disease’s direct effects in Kenya and many other African nations. The economic and social fallout of shutdowns is concentrated among the young, and almost a quarter of Kenya’s population is between 10 and 19. Purity, Lucy, and their peers have been hit by a shadow epidemic ripping through developing countries—pushing girls out of school, decreasing their earning potential, putting them at greater risk of violence, and potentially shortening their lives and those of their children.
The question now is whether there’s still time for recovery, or whether the pandemic has set girls’ progress back a generation. “Very simply, we know that adolescence is a critical moment in life for girls: It’s when many health problems either emerge or are averted, and many social ones, too,” says Lauren Rumble, a principal adviser for gender equality at Unicef. This, she says, is the time to get it right, because “if we get it wrong, we know they are going to live poorer, shorter lives.”
Before Covid, the story of girls’ progress over the past quarter-century was largely a positive one. Although only about half the world’s girls were enrolled in school in 1998, 25 years later that proportion had surged to 2 in 3, and the gender gap in education, which reflects the stubborn parental preference to invest in a son’s education but not a daughter’s, had closed in most countries. It’s no longer the case that young men are significantly more likely than young women to be literate. Rates of child marriage and female genital mutilation remain disturbingly high—about 1 girl in 5 is married before her 18th birthday, and some 200 million women and girls have undergone genital cutting—but they’ve been steadily decreasing, with drastic declines in many of the regions where these practices are most prevalent. Adolescent pregnancy, the leading killer of young women in the developing world, is down as young people gain access to modern contraceptive methods. A girl born today will live, on average, eight years longer than one born 25 years ago.
As the girls who benefited from these shifts become adults, the gains are magnified. Women with a secondary education are more likely to delay marriage and plan their family and less likely to be stuck in an abusive relationship and poverty. The children of these better-educated women are more likely to survive infancy and childhood, to go to school themselves, and to live longer, healthier lives. And as women break down long-standing barriers and assert their independence from men who disrespect or mistreat them, they become role models to girls and boys alike, expanding their idea of what’s possible for women and what’s acceptable for men. Countries with better-educated girls see so many tangible economic benefits that former World Bank economist and U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers argued that educating girls “may well be the highest-return investment available in the developing world.”
Evaline Wanjiru has spent many of her 26 years riding the wave of improvement. Her own mother didn’t go to school, but Wanjiru did, and she was good at it. She went through Form 2 (roughly 10th grade in the U.S.), and though she dropped out when she had her daughter, Blessing, and stayed out after having her son, Miguel, she was able to get a good job, in sales and marketing for Safaricom Plc, Kenya’s largest telecommunications provider. She still lived in a family compound in Huruma, the low-income neighborhood in Nairobi where she grew up, but the 15,000 shillings (about $130) she made each month let her put both her kids in school. At 7, Blessing was “brilliant at school,” Wanjiru says, noting with pride that “she was No. 3 out of 19” in her class. Maybe she’d be a doctor one day, Wanjiru imagined. And maybe, once Wanjiru’s kids were a bit older, she could go back to school, too.
The pandemic defeated those hopes. With Kenya’s schools closed and Blessing and Miguel suddenly home all day long, Wanjiru began the struggle of working parents the world over, trying to make sure the kids were physically safe and intellectually engaged. She quizzed Blessing in English to keep her language skills sharp and tried to help her with math and reading. But at-home learning in Kenya is much different than it is in wealthier nations. While the ministry of education tried to distribute learning materials via mobile phone, radio, and television, just 1 in 5 Kenyan adolescents had access to those tools for their schoolwork, according to a report from the office of the country’s president and the international nonprofit Population Council. More than half of those studied said their home didn’t have consistent electricity.
Wanjiru’s struggles were compounded early in the pandemic, when Safaricom shuttered her office and laid her off along with the rest of her colleagues. The story was the same all over Kenya, with parents suddenly losing their livelihoods and the ability to feed their families. Kenya’s already thin safety nets were failing. With schools closed, many Kenyan children joined the 350 million kids worldwide who lost their most consistent meal of the day. By the summer of 2020 almost 75% of Kenyan adolescents were regularly missing meals.
When parents don’t have money coming in, they can’t afford the fees and uniforms that are a fixture even in primary schools in many poor countries. That’s what happened to Wanjiru: As the return date for school approached, she was already so far in arrears that the school wouldn’t give her Blessing’s last pre-Covid report card. It was unclear whether they’d let her daughter through the doors when classes recommenced. “No mother can let her kids stay at home, not going to school,” Wanjiru says. Blessing was able to return, but the family is still struggling to pay the fees.
Across town from the Wanjirus, inside a small building with gray concrete walls and dim lighting, a half-dozen girls flounce and cackle as they pick through a stack of gauzy tutus. This is Project Elimu, the premier ballet school in the neighborhood of Kibera. Community programs like this one dot the area and other dense sections of Nairobi, creating havens away from the violence and drugs that can make the streets dangerous for girls, and from the abuse and instability found in some homes. For the many children in Kibera who have loving but poor families, Project Elimu and programs like it also provide basics, from shelter to snacks to sanitary pads. And they open up possibilities—they can be one of the few places a child hears that she is in control of her life or interacts with an adult who encourages her to dream big.
Covid gutted Project Elimu: Kenya’s pandemic rules barred indoor gatherings of more than a handful of people, and donors sent their funds elsewhere. But Mike Wamaya, the 36-year-old former professional dancer who founded the program (“I’m the dance teacher, I’m the cleaner, I’m everything here,” he says), has managed to keep the doors open, at least until the nightly curfew. Wamaya works with a lot of kids, but he sees particularly striking results with girls. “I saw, getting a bit of power, how powerful they get,” he says.
One girl who hangs out at Project Elimu is Esther, a 16-year-old with neat braids and the charisma of a newscaster—something she aspires to be someday, if she makes it to someday. She attempted suicide during the pandemic, driven to desperation by an abusive mother who stabbed her with a knife. Esther was one in a sea of young people suddenly confined at home with adults who hurt them, with no school or other place to be in contact with adults who might recognize something was wrong.
Shutting down recreational community programs to prevent the spread of a deadly illness is, on its face, an obvious step. But the cost to adolescent girls can be particularly high. A study of the 2014-16 Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, for example, found that girls experienced some of the most significant negative effects from the nation’s strict and broadly lifesaving policies of banning travel and closing schools. It also found those negative effects were lessened by community-based programs aimed at supporting and encouraging adolescents. Girls who’d participated in these programs prior to the epidemic were less likely to get pregnant during the lockdown period and more likely to return to school when it ended.
The Sierra Leone study provides some of the best data we have on how the response to a deadly contagion affects girls, and it helped to create a baseline for some of the first predictions about the effects of Covid shutdowns. Early on, Unesco warned that as many as 11 million girls might be pushed out of school permanently because of Covid. The United Nations Population Fund, the UN’s family-planning arm, predicted that six months of lockdowns could mean some 47 million women wouldn’t get the contraceptives they need, resulting in 7 million unintended pregnancies. Child marriages, which had been steadily decreasing, were predicted to reverse course, with 13 million more girls getting married by 2030 than would have if Covid had never happened.
Some of the consequences clearly haven’t been as dire as predicted. Contraceptive interruptions, for example, happened early in the pandemic and then dissipated. Still, the outcomes have been objectively bad: The UNFPA estimates that 12 million women were left without reliable birth control, resulting in 1.4 million unwanted pregnancies. Pre-Covid, the World Bank projected that 31 million people would escape extreme poverty in 2020. Instead, because of the pandemic, as many as 124 million people slipped below this bar that year, and the bank estimates that up to 163 million more may have followed suit in 2021. Researchers at the University of Denver forecast that it will take until 2030 for the number of women and girls living in extreme poverty to return to pre-pandemic levels.
In Kenya, according to government statistics released in June, school shutdowns disrupted the education of 18 million students. When schools reopened in January 2021, 92% of boys reenrolled, compared with 84% of girls. The consequences of girls not attending school, past research has found, include increased chances of adolescent marriage, female genital mutilation, and pregnancy. Girls who become pregnant are much likelier than adult women to die in pregnancy or childbirth and to have babies who are sicker and less likely to survive into adulthood.
According to aid groups, teen pregnancy rates in some Kenyan counties tripled in the first few months of the pandemic. And early numbers indicate that adolescent maternal deaths and stillbirths increased during that same period. When researchers asked girls in Kenya why they hadn’t returned to school, the most common reason was that their family couldn’t afford the fees. The second most common was that they were pregnant.
Other long-term effects, though, are less clear, in part because of a long-standing dearth of data, and in part because Covid has prevented in-person information-gathering, the gold standard. “You can’t have someone at a household survey level, going into a household to speak to someone directly,” says Megan O’Donnell, assistant director of the Center for Global Development’s gender program. “If you’re thinking about now only being able to rely on a mobile phone survey or an internet survey, you’ve just excluded, unintentionally, the most vulnerable.” Social isolation has also made it harder for researchers to rely on their usual adult proxies for adolescent problems: teachers, community organizers, church leaders, coaches, mentors—people like Project Elimu’s Wamaya.
That’s all left precious little information about the impact of Covid on girls like Esther. She lives in Kibera, the oldest girl in her family. With schools closed and her mother stressed and out of work, her duties were laid out: chores, cooking, tending to the younger children. Esther has a younger brother, Sam, but boys aren’t typically expected to do the same kind of household work as girls. According to Unicef, girls as young as 5 spend 30% more time on household chores than boys; by the time they’re 14, the disparity has grown to 50%. That expectation, experts and educators say, is part of what keeps girls out of school. Covid—and the sudden, expanded need for full-time caregiving that it brought—made the situation worse.
Sick of feeling like a maid, pushed to the physical and psychological brink by her mother’s abuse, and with no school to occupy her days, Esther began spending more time with her boyfriend. Within a few months, she was pregnant. He abandoned her, and she gave birth alone in the hospital; her baby, who had the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck, was delivered via emergency C-section. Esther wasn’t allowed to leave the hospital until she’d paid for the cost of her treatment and stay, a common practice in Kenya. The only person who showed up to help was Wamaya, the community dance program organizer. He paid her bill, got her home, and encouraged her to spend more time at the ballet school. It didn’t matter, he told her, if she didn’t want to dance.
Esther spends most of her time at home, caring for two babies: her son and the brother her mother gave birth to around the same time. Maybe, Esther says, something will change and she can finish her education. But she has a hard time imagining how. “Who will take care of my child when I go to school, and who will take care of her child when she goes to work?” she asks.
The best ways to get girls and women back on track, says O’Donnell of the Center for Global Development, are “cash, care, and data.” Rich countries should immediately put money into people’s pockets; they should prioritize paying for child care and encouraging men to share the burden; and they should strengthen data collection and analysis, to bring problems into clearer focus. If one thing is apparent, O’Donnell says, it’s that “the economic impact of this crisis is going to long outlast the direct health effect.”
In May, the Group of Seven publicly affirmed “a commitment to placing gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls at the heart of our work to build back better.” It also declared: “Nowhere is our resolve stronger than in addressing the global set-back in girls’ education.” But the girls who are out of school now need more than commitment and resolve.
The Kenyan government is aware of the issues. “The Covid-19 protocols that were put in place by the Government unmasked the gaps that need to be addressed,” Julius Jwan, principal secretary for the Department of Early Learning and Basic Education, said in a written statement. The government’s strategies for girls’ education, he wrote, include “ensuring implementation of re-entry guidelines, provision of sanitary towels and other school kits, psychosocial support for the affected girls, parental empowerment on their roles and responsibilities, and review of policies and plans to ensure they are gender responsive.” Jwan said the pandemic also opened lines of communication and collaboration between the government, NGOs, educators, and religious groups, which could help address problems in the long term.
What seems to work best to keep girls in school even during a crisis is a network of dedicated adults who have the resources required to help students and their families. Dorcas Adhiambo, principal of a 240-student secondary school in Western Kenya run by the nonprofit Wiser, was able to keep almost all her girls attending class by coordinating on-campus distribution efforts and home visits to issue smartphones so girls could learn via WhatsApp. The educators also brought necessary items—sanitary pads, soap, maize, beans, sugar—to ease the pressure for girls to contribute to the family’s income at the expense of their education. This was possible because Wiser is a private program with limited scope, funded by donors who stepped up to meet specific and rapidly changing needs. It only works “if there’s heavy funding and heavy follow-up from all quarters,” Adhiambo says. “When it is a big scale, the size of Kenya, if you have a school with over 4,000 students and you don’t have access to a platform where you can meet regularly, then you leave it to chance.”
Ntaiya, the Masai educator, says that her organization did house-by-house outreach in the community to keep girls safe, and that by and large, her students are coming back. But they’re often returning wounded and traumatized. “We know that [female genital mutilation] increased,” she says. “We know teen pregnancy increased. And child marriages—it’s just on the rise. We are hoping that we can change this narrative and figure out a way of protecting girls and protecting communities and helping them thrive. But all the work we’ve done, you’re seeing it’s going backward.” She pauses and takes a breath. “It’s a tough topic to talk about.”
At the time this story was published, Kenya was dealing with a sharp rise in Covid cases attributed to the omicron variant, but the government hadn’t announced any new curfews or shutdowns. Lucy and Purity were caring for their newborn sons full time, with Lucy hoping to resume classes in May and Purity planning to return to a tailoring training program, if they could find sponsors to pay their fees.
In Kibera, Esther slips into the dance studio when things get especially rough at home. Some days she still feels helpless. But once in a while, she can imagine something better. Her own mother had no formal education, instead spending her younger years working as house help for her stepmother. Esther may not have graduated from secondary school, but she did better than her mom, and she hopes that her son will do better than her—and maybe even lift her up as he rises. “I see my son as a strong guy,” she says. “I feel like he will dream more than me. I may not get raised now. But he will raise me.”
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