COVID-19 VACCINATION AND GENDER

The rise of Covid-19 from Wuhan, China at the end of 2019 saw countries globally being disrupted. Kenya reported its first case on 13th March 2020 and since then, tension built up all over as basic public health safety principles were threatened. Infections were seen to spread rapidly in different counties and to curb that, Kenya has embarked on initiatives that ensure free vaccination to all its citizens, despite the many speculations revolving around the vaccines. This feature focuses on how Gender continues to impact vaccination processes in Kenya.

To date, Kenya has recorded a total of 186,453 Positive infections and 3,697 deaths, out of a sample size of 1,983,016. Due to the rapid spread of the virus and the dangers it exposes people to, the Kenyan government has issued out free vaccines to its citizens to help in containing the virus. On 5th March 2021, Kenya received its first batch of the AstraZeneca vaccine from India.

“We’ve been fighting this virus, but we’ve been fighting it with rubber bullets. This time around, what we have received here (metaphorically speaking) is equivalent to the acquisition of machine guns, bazookas and tanks to fight this war against Covid-19.” Mutahi Kagwe, CS Health.  

However, many women continue to shy away from getting the vaccine, based on the myths being said about the vaccine and Women’s health, especially their reproductive health. Some of the concerns being raised are it interferes with one’s menstrual calendar, could cause infertility, leads to internal blood clots and others associate the Covid-19 virus with polytheism entirely. The most widespread theory was some Africans believed that Covid -19 is an invention from the West that was meant to eradicate the wider population and that whoever got the vaccine may not live long.  

“There are people who believe that the vaccine will start bringing changes to one’s body. However, I would like to dismiss these claims and term them as untrue since the vaccines have passed through many trial phases and were eventually approved by the World Health Organization as fit for human use. Getting the vaccine is important as it reduces your exposure to contracting the virus. “

Based on statistics by the Ministry of Health in Kenya, 721,070 people have been vaccinated among all 47 counties. 56% are men while 44% are women. Kenya hopes to have vaccinated over 10 Million adults by August 2021.

“By Christmas of this year, we intend to have vaccinated over 10 Million adults according to our experts and we would have built a capacity to vaccinate 150,000 per day by August 2021.” President Uhuru Kenyatta.

Tina Mwaka hails from the Kenyan Coast. She says she decided to get the vaccine as she tends to interact with many people due to the nature of her work. She sees it as a safety precaution to protect her family.

“I decided to get the vaccine after seeing the many advertisements by the Government on the need for vaccination. I do casual labour and that involves being at different places a lot. Seeing that I have kids and my parents stay at home with us, I took the initiative to get the vaccine to protect myself and them from my daily errands. I did not get any side effects as other people say. So I would say the vaccine worked well with me.”  

Sabina Mwangala is an aged woman working for the Government. She said she sought to get the vaccine due to her long term blood pressure illness. She was sceptical she would get sick, as her age makes her prone to contracting the virus easily. She too says the vaccine did not affect her, as other women would think.

“I got vaccinated because cases were rising and I saw many people die of the virus. I got vaccinated to be safe. The stories being said about the vaccine are false. People will continue suffering if they believe the myths being said about the vaccine. I was told to wait 15 minutes after being injected and managed to go to work afterwards. To date, I am still okay. I understand that my age and blood pressure makes me vulnerable and so as a precaution, I decided to get the vaccine.”

Dr Caroline Agutu, a committee member on Infectious diseases from Mombasa County, says the rumours being spread about the vaccine and its effect on Women’s health is false. Even though Covid-19 is a new disease, there is no scientific proof that links the vaccine to altering menstrual flow nor fertility in Women.

“The vaccine has undergone many research phases and The World Health Organization officially approved it as fit for humans. The vaccine could have mild effects depending on each person. Some of the commonly reported cases are mild pain in the injected area, body weakness for a few days and mild body pains for a few hours. No proven case has linked the vaccine to infertility in women.”  

The Ministry of Health encourages everyone who has been vaccinated to report the side effects the vaccine presented on them and to date, no one has reported any case of menstrual flow changes nor infertility and other infections. Any woman who is sceptical about the Vaccine is being advised to visit any certified health facility to get clear information and avoid rumours.

By Dalila Athman

A SECOND CHANCE FOR YOUNG MOTHERS

“I got married at 16. I dropped out of school because my father refused to pay my school fees. I loved school and it was painful watching my father refuse to pay for me yet he had money. I left home because I was depressed and so I decided to get married.” Zuhura, an 18-year-old mother of one living in the Makina area around Kibera, says.

Pregnancy, early marriages, poverty and preferences for boys are some of the reasons why so many girls drop out of school. This denies them the opportunity to further their Education, attain their life and career goals and contribute to Social- Economic development. In addition, teenage pregnancies expose girls and their children to major health risks.

According to the World Health Organization, pregnancy and childbirth complications are the leading causes of death among girls aged 15-19 years globally. This feature shares the highs and lows of young mothers in Kibera, Nairobi County, and the strategies put in place to empower them academically, professionally and economically.

Hellen Nabwire, who has been born and bred in Kibera, describes the circumstances that led her to early motherhood.

“My parents divorced leaving me to end up with my father. I schooled at Joseph Kang’ethe primary school and after that he refused to pay for my high school education, saying he has to school my brother first. I kept wondering what I would be doing the entire time my brother was schooling. Seeing other children go to school made me feel lonely and having no one to advise me, I decided to get married. My husband too refused to take me to school and culturally, for me to be regarded as a wife, I have to bear children for him.”

Rose, 23, explains how her brother’s death left her on the brink of hopelessness. “I was living with my brother in Nairobi when he died. I did not have a place to stay after the demise but I had a boyfriend, who was also my brother’s friend. I decided to go stay with him instead of suffering in the streets.”

According to a National Council for Population and Development report, 13,000 young girls drop out of school each year to have children. This exceeds their abilities to acquire skills, attain high levels of education and access social-economic opportunities. The bitter reality is that many of these teen mothers are subjected to stigma, rejection or violence from partners, parents and peers that often lead to further poverty and economic hardship.

Education for girls has benefits. Educated women have a greater chance of escaping poverty, leading healthier and more productive lives and raising the standards of living for their children. Uwezo Foundation understands this and this is why through its Bright Future Programme, it supports young mothers to re-enrol in secondary school and tertiary colleges as well as offer them interest-free business loans and skills development opportunities.

“We plan that we have women who can fend for themselves by the time they are leaving Uwezo. It makes us confident that they are doing something with their lives. They can support their families, live more responsibly, know how to interact with the community and can look for more opportunities even outside Kibera.” Sylvia, Development Manager says.

At 10:00 AM in Karanja, Kibera Area, 20-30 young mothers accompanied by their children gather at the facility every Saturday to participate in the different activities. Sylvia, Development Manager of the project explains;

“The women meet every week for about 2 hours. We engage in a lot of activities like training sessions, and they get to propose the kinds of topics they would like to learn about. We get experienced moderators who come and coordinate the sessions. Topics could be on financial literacy, Entrepreneurship, Business skills, Reproductive Health, Child care, Grooming, Life skills and any other topic, making us create a calendar for all these events.”

Zuhura, currently in form four, goes to school for 3 hours a day. She enrolled on the adult education system so that she can focus on her studies in a setting that is both free from Stigma and one that makes her able to fend for her 3 months- old daughter. She knows too well that carving out time for education in the busy schedule of a new mother and a wife will take sacrifice.

As much as Hellen Nabwire desires to go back to school, her double responsibility makes it impossible, as she explains.

“I cannot go back to school. I have a daughter in high school who requires school fees, my 4-year old has to start school soon while the one in class 7 will be sitting for her final exam soon. I have another baby who is yet to start school. I’m required to pay rent and my business collapsed. Where will I get all that money yet I’m a single mother?”

Does Uwezo Foundation have a plan for young mothers who can neither rejoin school nor initiate businesses?

“We are still in the process of seeing whether we can be placing some of them into jobs that will give them a stable income that they can be able to budget for at the end of each month since most of them rely on meagre jobs to sustain themselves.” Says Sylvia.

The backdrop of school closures, Economic challenges occasioned by the pandemic and too much idle time on their hands made adolescent girls face teenage pregnancies and early marriages. The Ministry of Health Information System Health Records indicates that over 300,000 girls got pregnant in the first year of the pandemic. As schools reopened, a proportion of girls did not re-enrol and sit for National examinations due to school fees and unintended pregnancies.

Kenya has several laws that should protect young mothers Right to Education like The Education Act and the Return to School policy which encourages the establishment of centres where young mothers could continue with their formal education while breastfeeding their children. It also calls for the counselling of the girls, parents, teachers and other students in the school. If these laws are implemented, more girls won’t have to trade their education for raising their children.

Zuhura became a mother during the Pandemic and her advice to other young mothers is not to despair when they slip but rather take on the opportunities that life will present them.

                                                                                       By Lourdes Walusala.

 

THE EFFECTS OF COVID-19: WHAT NGOs ARE DOING TO HELP

Rachel*, a single mother of three and a businesswoman was greatly affected when the pandemic broke out in Kenya in March 2020. She owned a small hotel and when the pandemic broke out and restaurants were ordered to close, she was out of a job and a means to support her family. Afterwards, when restaurants were allowed to open albeit with measures in place including social distancing, her business was struggling as customers were afraid to dine in. As a result, she was forced to close her business as she had no money to run it or customers to serve.

Health Principal Secretary, Susan Mochache says that psycho-social cases have risen tremendously since the pandemic began thus becoming a matter of concern. However, she says it is to be expected as we have had to get used to a new normal. Last year, 2,330 people called the emergency toll free hotline 1199 wanting advice on how to handle stress citing a lack of money and employment. 

Similarly related, according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS), 1.7 million people lost their jobs when Covid-19 hit in 2020. Kenya also saw an increased number of sexual and gender-based violence cases throughout the year. As such, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with the help of government bodies helped in the fight against GBV. One such NGO is the Wangu Kanja Foundation whose vision is a society free of sexual violence. 

The repercussions of the measures to deal with the pandemic, including rising financial and food insecurity, heightened the vulnerability of women and girls to sexual exploitation, rape, domestic violence, child abuse and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence. To mitigate this, the Wangu Kanja Foundation in partnership with six other NGOs launched a safety net programme targeting Kenyan informal settlements. The programme funded by the European Union (EU), Danish and German governments was to supplement Kenyan government interventions that were already supporting low income and vulnerable households. 

Rachel was directed to the Wangu Kanja foundation by her friend when she was struggling with the stress that came about after she was forced to close down her business. Due to the financial burden, she was faced with afterwards, she was kicked out of her house as she was no longer able to pay rent. This fueled her anguish and was glad when she found help through the foundation. They began by offering her counselling services and then proceeded to support her financially by providing her with approximately 7,700 Kenyan shillings every month for three months. She was also equipped with skills to help her earn a living. The skills included how to make soap and sanitizers as well as sewing clothes. The support Rachel received enabled her to start a business and survive during a time many were struggling. 

Catherine Kamau, the programs officer at Wangu Kanja Foundation says the safety net programme dubbed ‘Covid-19 social safety net for vulnerable households’ was targeting GBV survivors. She continued to say that the project majorly focused on women because they were the majority of those who would report when assaulted but that men and children were also part of it. She revealed that the foundation had financially assisted 285 SGBV survivors in 2020 who were affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. She also mentioned that they had contracted 10 other counsellors to help counsel people who had been abused as previously they only had 1 in-house counsellor who could not keep up with the demand.

As more and more SGBV survivors gain the strength and courage to speak up, more NGOs must lend their support to the fight against this vice in conjunction with the government even as plans are underway to remove systemic barriers that allow GBV to thrive. 

The original story, ‘Jukumu la mashirika yasiyo ya serikali katika kupigana na Covid-19’ was aired on August 4th 2021 and reported by Caroline Wambere.

Link: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1kXMK3PH__6_z06QzBPKwTqz-Zs3UkQ4Y/view 

*Not her real name.