Diram Duba, advocate, Kenya

At the beginning of this year, I followed up on a story of a girl Sarah**, (not her real name) and her mother from Ramole Village in Kenya’s Marsabit County. Their property was taken away because her mother did not give birth to a male child. Therefore, there was no one to inherit her father’s property in line with the Borana culture, and Sarah and her mother were left with absolutely nothing.

Sarah and her mother shared this story with me with tears in their eyes, explaining what they were going through and why they needed to be supported. Sarah attends a public primary school a few kilometres from her home. Her sole purpose of going to school, as she explained, was to get something to eat from what was provided through the school feeding program, and would even request for some food for her mother from the school, which helped them get through the day.

With the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic in Kenya, one of the measures to prevent contracting and spreading of the disease is for families to stay at home and practice social distancing or isolate themselves from friends and others. Schools have been closed, meaning that many children like Sarah, who depended on school feeding programs before the outbreak of the pandemic, barely have anything to eat.

Unfortunately, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, women’s and girls’ vulnerability to gender-based inequality and violence increases. I can only imagine what is happening to vulnerable girls and women who are at risk of underdoing female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) as my culture demands. What about women and girls living with an abusive partner or family member?

Stories of girls like Sarah give me a reason to intensify my fight for gender equality in my community and beyond.

Gender equality is a global priority, and the support for young girls and women, their training and their full ability to make their voices and ideas heard are drivers for sustainable development and peace. During this pandemic, the world’s attention has shifted, and gender-based violence is on the rise. In my community, women and girls walk long distances to collect water and firewood. In this time of COVID-19, there is an increase in the demand for water to enable families to stay safe by practising proper hygiene to reduce the transmission of the disease, meaning that women have to travel further and further to find scarce water sources, which puts them at higher risk of contracting the disease and exposes them to acts of gender-based violence such as rape.

At least 22 counties in Kenya practice FGM/C which unfortunately is on the increase during this pandemic. The Government and stakeholders need to prioritize services for the prevention and response to increased domestic violence and other forms of gender-based violence.

Women and girls face a heightened threat of violence during this pandemic, and most may also be disconnected from their usual support networks which would provide help and rescues when required.

I therefore urge local and national governments and other development partners to intensify child protection efforts, provide relief services, respond to increased domestic violence and other forms of gender-based violence in our communities.

Diram Duba is an Amref Health Africa Youth Champion for the end to gender-based violence and a champion for gender equity for women and girls in Kenya.