Gender equality concept | Source: UNCTAD

The COVID-19 pandemic has not only changed life as we knew it, but also threatened to significantly reverse gains towards attaining gender equality and accordance of equal rights and opportunities to women and girls in Kenya.

Over the years, the Kenyan government has taken measures to advance gender equality. This has ranged from free maternity and immunization programs for children to providing free sanitary towels to over 4 million school-going girls. The Constitution of Kenya provides for equal gender representation in leadership positions, requiring at least no more than two-thirds of holders of elective public bodies be from one gender. Article 27(3) of the Constitution also provides for equal treatment of either gender, including access to social, economic, political and cultural opportunities.

In spite of all this, gender equality still remains a challenge in Kenya. Women have lesser access to basic education, economic participation and political representation, and face greater health and safety risk. According to the United Nations, women and girls currently earn and save less, while holding insecure jobs.

The pandemic has adversely impacted health of women and girls, due to shifting priorities and reallocation of resources for sexual and reproductive health services. Previous health crises such as Ebola have demonstrated that in such times, resources are normally diverted from routine health services, thus reducing already limited access to these services, as well as maternal, new-born and child health services. Consequently, some women in Kenya could not access contraceptives during the pandemic, leading to unwanted pregnancies. This has also been linked to the alarming number of adolescent pregnancies since the onset of the pandemic and school closures. Statistics indicate that in 2020, 152,000 teenage girls in Kenya got pregnant during this period.

Besides access to critical healthcare services, the pandemic has also increased the burden of unpaid care work, due to heightened needs of the vulnerable and sick. Globally, women perform more than three times unpaid care work than men, according to the International Labour Organisation. The care burden on women in Kenya significantly increased with the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly those bedridden at home. This reduced the time available for women to generate income from business or formal jobs.

As such, many women suffered job losses, negatively impacting their income levels. According to 2020 KNBS Economic Survey, the proportion of the population in active informal or formal employment dropped to 65.3% for men and 48.8% for women. This is in addition to significantly disrupting workflow, as a result of reduced working hours, occasioned by the curfews and social distancing measures.

Labor-force participation in Kenya, 2019 vs 2020 | Source: Development Initiatives

The COVID-19 pandemic significantly reversed the last three decades’ gains in improving access to quality education for women and girls. Globally, governments shut down learning institutions, which had to shift online. While e-learning has been effective for some, it generally remained inaccessible for many, especially women and girls from poor and developing countries.

Aggravation of sexual and gender-based violence has translated to fewer women and girls being able to access learning materials during the pandemic. Pregnant school-going girls have been forced into early marriages, apparently as a safeguard against immorality, and to put them in a ‘family’ setup.

The pandemic has also heightened the risk of women and girls to sexual harassment and gender-based violence, as a result of movement restrictions and social isolation. Violence against women is the most pervasive breach of human rights. The UN Women estimates that up to 243 million women and girls globally aged between 15 and 49 years, experienced physical and/or sexual violence by their intimate partners during the year. These effects of gender-based violence and unwanted pregnancies are likely to outlive the pandemic.

President Uhuru Kenyatta recently raised concerns over the rise of gender-based violence in Kenya and directed the National Crime and Research Center to probe it. The 16 days of Activism against Gender Violence campaign by the WHO to call for prevention and elimination of violence against women and girls globally also emphasized ending GBV. These efforts and directives are expected to substantively impact and assure Kenyan women and girls protection from physical and sexual violence.

With COVID-19 having affected the socio-economic aspects of life, especially for women, its impact on inclusion and participation of women in civic processes will continue to be felt beyond the pandemic.

Policymakers need to adopt measures to limit scarring effects of the pandemic on women and girls. Recovery measures post COVID-19 should aim to build a more equal, inclusive and sustainable economy for both genders. Governments, NGOs and international actors need to collaborate and inculcate a gendered approach towards fighting the COVID-19 pandemic for an inclusive result, especially for women and girls.