By Susan Otieno, World Vision Kenya Communications Officer
Seventeen-year-old Cathy* has always been afraid of an incurable virus.
Over the past few years, she would frequently pop into her local clinic in Kisumu County, Kenya, to ask the nurses questions about the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV).
Cathy was scared of the virus since it has no known cure and she was worried that one day it could interfere with her dreams of being a nurse.
However, what Cathy never anticipated was that she would get pregnant and see her dreams put at risk due to a different virus: COVID-19.
COVID-19 has destroyed everything. If it were not for the pandemic, I would have been busy in school and not pregnant - laments Cathy.
Cathy has not been in school since mid-March 2020, when all the schools in Kenya were closed as part of the Kenya government’s response to COVID-19.
“It happened like a joke. I was shocked,” said Cathy. She had been in her second year of high school.
Families struggle to cover school expenses
Cathy and her siblings were raised by their mother single-handedly, following the death of their father when they were young.
Cathy was thus terrified of disclosing the pregnancy to her mother as she felt that she had let her down.
“She told me that I have wasted the school fee she has been paying,” Cathy recalls, sadly. She has not yet informed the baby’s father – her former primary school teacher - about the pregnancy.
Graduating from primary to high school in Kenya is an exciting milestone for many children. But it also comes with prohibitive costs.
Parents usually worry and struggle to cover all the expenses for buying new uniforms, books and other items needed before a child can be admitted in high school.
As a single parent, Cathy’s mum really struggled to raise the finances required for the purchases. Eventually, Cathy's former teacher came to her aid, and bought all essential items that were required.
Exploiting the vulnerable at a time of need
“When I was joining my first year of high school, he bought me everything, including my personal effects like sanitary pads. When I needed something, I told him. It was difficult for mum to always buy me sanitary towels because she does not earn much,” Cathy explains.
Cathy’s case is unfortunately not rare. Between 2016 and 2019 when children interviewed their peers about teen pregnancy in seven countries in sub-Saharan Africa, they discovered stories of rape on the way to the market, abuse by schoolteachers, and large numbers of girls forced into transactional relationships due to extreme poverty and the high cost of schooling.
When girls became pregnant, it was overwhelmingly as a result of sexual abuse by an adult, including schoolteachers. The children researchers repeatedly suggested that poverty put girls at greater risk of sexual violence, as it forced them into transactional relationships, generally with older adult men.
Economic hardships due to COVID-19
The lockdowns, meant to keep children and families safe from COVID-19, unfortunately seem to have also exacerbated this trend.
Recent headlines in Kenya have highlighted the situation in Machakos County where nearly 4,000 school-aged girls have become pregnant in the last five months.
Cathy explains that every day, her mother looks for casual jobs such as opportunities to hand wash clothes for people. However, she does not earn much.
Worse still, such job opportunities have significantly dwindled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, hence reducing the amount of cash that her mum desperately needs.
“There is a problem because mum is not earning much with casual jobs. I wonder who will provide for me and the baby. I usually have breakfast and then my next meal is supper,” says Cathy.
She is worried that her mother will not have the time to take care of her baby, so she can go back to school when they do reopen.Cathy also feels that requesting her to do so will be asking for too much.
“I still don’t know if I will be able to go back to school when they open but if I get a place to leave the baby, I can go back to school,” Cathy states.
I wonder who will provide for me and the baby.
She adds, “I have no one to support me, even friends. In church, I have not yet told anyone. My peers are laughing at me. Girls in my village are talking badly about me.”
In Kisumu County, World Vision has trained 20 faith leaders to offer Psychosocial First Aid (PFA) to families affected by the pandemic.
The organisation has also partnered with the government to raise awareness in the community about COVID-19 prevention and child protection matters as a result of an increase in reported cases of teen pregnancies.
Other initiatives also include assisting girls with sanitary towels at a time when families such as Cathy’s are struggling to make ends meet.
Cathy prays that even if she can’t, hopefully her baby will get a good education in the future. But for now, she only hopes that everything will work out well for her and her baby, and that the coronavirus disease will go away.
In our report: COVID-19 AFTERSHOCKS: ACCESS DENIED, we look at how Teenage pregnancy threatens to block one million girls, like Cathy, from returning to school in Sub-Saharan Africa.
*Names have been changed to protect children’s identities