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A Lab technician at one of the hospitals in Nairobi. Kenya had recorded four deaths and 122 positive cases of coronavirus by April 3, 2020.

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Securing girls and children during COVID-19

A recent report by the World Health Organisation (WHO) indicates that children too can be infected and die from COVID-19. In Kenya, a six-year-old boy is among four people who had succumbed to the virus by April 3, 2020. This is enough confirmation that the virus does not discriminate on age. The National Government has put in place several cross-cutting measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 including directing the closure of basic, tertiary and higher learning institutions. This shows how the government is responsive by taking drastic measures to protect its future generations. This is a commendable move in safeguarding the lives of Kenyans and its residents. However, how parents and caregivers respond to the spread of COVID-19 can either cause panic or bring a sense of calmness at home and especially among children.

It is critical for parents and caregivers to ensure that members of their households including children are well informed of the risks involved and the precautions to take collectively as a family and as individuals. Debunking myths from facts is one way of empowering children with relevant information and making them realise a sense of control. WHO has developed easy to understand myth busters that caregivers can use to engage children in a constructive discussion around the virus, its spread, prevention and what one can do to protect themselves and those around them.

With the Government’s directive ordering the closure of learning institutions, children will find themselves with a lot of playtime and will want to reach out to their friends in the neighbourhood. Although play is important for children’s growth and well-being, parents and caregivers need to explain to children the risks that come with social interactions with their friends at this critical time, and encourage them to remain at home to avoid the risk of contracting the virus. In addition, we urge parents and caregivers to ensure that children remain focussed on their education, and that they are engaged in creative ways of ensuring that learning continues. This includes developing simple study timetables with adequate rest to allow for a combination of learning and play within the home settings, and embracing virtual learning through available tools and platforms. We applaud the various schools and media houses that are already advancing virtual learning. If only the Government’s 2013 Digital Literacy Programme, popularly known as the schools laptops project had been fully implemented, things would be different in our basic learning institutions.

We must also be cognisant of the risks that girls particularly face during seasons like these. Girls, especially those from marginalised communities and those with disabilities whether physical or mental – may be more affected by the secondary impacts of the pandemic due to their age, gender and all these other accompanying factors. The risk of gender-based violence including defilement, harassment and exploitation, and in some communities, increased risk of undergoing Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and child marriages cannot and must not be left unchecked. In the recent past, we have seen an intolerable increase in defilement cases reported in Kenya, and with the current increase in the time children, particularly girls, are spending at home, we must remain alert to the likelihood of abuse happening to these children and more so girls.

We, therefore, call upon parents, caregivers, community members and local authorities to remain vigilant, supportive and responsive to potential and actual cases of abuse, so as to uphold the general well-being of our children. In addition, it is critical to ensure that continued adequate supplies for proper menstrual hygiene management are available and accessible to girls and young women in our society, particularly in the most marginalized communities.

Let us also remember our duty of care to children and particularly adolescent girls living with HIV/AIDs who could be at the risk of interrupted access to ARVs. I urge the government and all the relevant authorities to work together with the health service providers at all levels including community partners to ensure those living with HIV/AIDs maintain uninterrupted access to antiretroviral treatment.

Economic stress on families resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic and its secondary impacts may increase the potential for child labour and other negative coping mechanisms. Girls and young women facing severe economic shocks brought about by the pandemic are more likely to take on high- risk work for their economic survival, exposing themselves to increased risk of exploitation and abuse.

Measures must be put into place to ensure that the current situation in Kenya is not used to economically and sexually exploit and endanger the lives of vulnerable girls and young women. We call upon the government and other stakeholders to strengthen the existing social protection measures and to expand financial and material support to affected households and communities.

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As the Ministry of Health continues to promote public awareness through various media platforms, it is paramount that women, who are the primary caregivers both at health institutions and at the household level, be provided with adequate information and protection as they are part of the response and solutions to protect lives and prevent the spread of the virus. Plan International remains committed to supporting Government of Kenya led response while shining light on the specific challenges girls will face during this period as well as offering support to them where possible to ease their stress and burden.

Kate Maina-Vorley is the Country Director for Plan International Kenya,

an organisation that advances children’s rights and equality for girls.

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