Beyond Covid-19: Kenya’s ripple effects of the pandemic
Around the world, the Covid-19 pandemic is causing many worrying issues. In Kenya, a country with a relatively low covid mortality rate, it’s not the virus but the imposed government measures that are creating the largest problems. “We have seen a surge in child labour because of corona measures.”
Anne! Get over here right now!” shouts a seventeen-year-old girl, sitting on a plastic garden chair, as she pretends to sip from her empty bottle. “Go and fetch me another drink!” Another girl comes to the stage. “Mama, I need some money for my sanitary towels,” the girl whimpers. When her drunk ‘mother’ answers, screaming that she doesn’t have any money, the girl replies angrily: “What, you have money for booze, but not for me?!” “Exactly!” her mother answers. “You are an adult now, just go and make your own money.”
This conversation is part of a skit performed by teenage group ‘Heart of Hope’. Seated around the actors are a hundred young boys and girls, who are following the performance closely. Most of them already know what will happen next: the girl will be forced to sell things on the street, will meet the wrong man who gives her presents like a smartphone and then, in the blink of an eye, she’s pregnant - leading to her quitting school.
Apart from these theatre skits, this meet-up features discussions, presentations, prayers and plays. “We always discuss together to find out if some children are still working for money,” says Teckler Ochieng (18), who is part of youth group K-Teens. “Together, we fight against this thing called child labour. We even bring children back to school, so that they can continue with their learning.”
Teckler herself was forced to work as a child, but has now become one of the most vocal girls of her group. “By organizing these meetings, we can tell other children our story,” she says.. “We encourage them to be humble. This bad time will pass. They can go to school and get a job later, when the time reaches. Not now. Instead of being idle, take your book and read.”
Because of the Covid-19 crisis, many parents of the children in Kisumu County have lost their jobs. And so they find themselves suddenly at home. “That’s when parents find themselves in awkward situations,” says John Oduor, who works for the Kenya Alliance for Advancement of Children (KAACR) a member of the Civic Engagement Alliance.
“Most of them have never been at home with their husband or wife and their children. [This]has brought a lot of gender-based domestic violence. We have heard cases of a mother and father who were fighting over a meal, because there was not enough food.”
“A child might think: I am not going to school, so I need to help out my parents, as they are in a dire situation.” sixteen year-old Christine says.That is how child labour can start.”
Christine, who is part of the ‘Heart of Hope’ youth group, knows all too well what child labour means. “My father died a long time ago,” she explains, “and my mother went to work in Nairobi. Now, I didn’t get her number and so I was lonely at home. I was the one [who had] to get food on the table, which was very hard. I washed people’s clothes, fetched firewood... After a while, a woman who works for this Kapuonja Child Labour Free Zone found me and got me some things I was lacking. So then, I didn’t have to work anymore.”
The Kapuonja Child Labour Free Zone is an initiative to ensure that children will not have to work for money. It’s a necessary movement, because in these corona days, cases of child labour surge. Unfortunately, exploitation of children doesn’t stop at child labour. On the contrary, John explains: “What has been reported to us, is that girls that go into child labour, they undergo various forms of abuses like sexual exploitation, which causes other problems like teenage pregnancies. Because of Covid, girls have become even more vulnerable than they were before.”
“Because of this pandemic, the number of child labour is very high,” Teckler adds. “This situation of idleness makes a lot of people think that children can do some work. And even when they are not forced, there is still a lot of peer pressure. If you see someone is dressed nicely, then you think: wow, I have to go and work and get this money, so I can buy something nice for myself. Because most parents cannot afford to buy these things for their children.”
It’s the lack of money that makes children vulnerable to predators - they might fall for the trap of a boy or a man, to do something in return for sex. “We have several reported cases of teenage pregnancies,” John Oduor says. “These pregnancies have all happened because of idleness of the youngsters. To make things worse, with some of these girls we are afraid they will not return to school. Because here, if you get pregnant [while] in school, there is a lot of stigma.”
And so the problems pile up. But there is hope, says John. “We are now working with the county government and partners like ICCO to help parents. Most people here have a patch of land and if they plant more than just one type of crop, the family can also eat those greens.” Once they grow these nutritious meals, John would like the parents to prioritize their household youths, in order to keep them off the streets. “And then they can sell the rest to the private sector,” he continues. “We are helping them get in touch with these companies, so that they can supply their nutritious goods for extra cash. So that they can then also pay school fees, so that children in school become less vulnerable.”
To face and prevent children’s issues, KAACR and their partner organizations organise meetings like the one that Teckler and Christine are attending. “There is K-Teens, there is Heart of Hope. At KAACR we are trying to help these youth groups by organizing weekly get-togethers like this one,” John says. “Especially now, during times of idleness and school closures, these meetings are very important. We talk about child labour, sexuality and general child protection. We share success stories, which they will carry back to their own area.”
“Many things have to be done to fight child labour, as it causes so many problems,” Christine sighs. She and Teckler are sure to do many talks on the grounds of the Kapuonja Child Labour Free Zone, they say. “I’ve seen many times that a child works to get paid, to get money,” Teckler continues, “and that has to stop.” Christine proudly adds: “By organizing these meet-ups between youth groups from across the county, the power is back in the hands of the youths. We will be okay. Because now, we are taking action.”