Lydia spends most of her time at home these days. Coronavirus restrictions are strictly implemented in Turkana County, Kenya, where Lydia lives with her siblings and stepmother. The shy 18-year-old helps out in the house, doing the odd job but spends most of her time studying.
Child Protection experts estimate that about 1.6 billion children, like Lydia, are out of school due to Covid-19. While some countries are beginning to open up, UNICEF warns that millions of vulnerable children may never return to the classroom. The pandemic threatens to undo the hard-won progress for girls’ education and could set the fight for gender equality back decades.
In their framework for safely reopening schools, UNICEF state: “Being out of school increases the risk of teenage pregnancy, sexual exploitation, child marriage, violence and other threats. “
“There were challenges for girls to go to school. You know, in our community, they take a girl as a source of income because she can be married,” Lydia’s stepmother, Lomali Sara says.
Aidlink has been working to address the root causes that keep girls from attending school in Turkana County since the late 90s. Through partner, Girl Child Network (GCN), Aidlink has mounted grassroots’ information campaigns to educate communities on the importance of education for girls. While the construction of inclusive toilets means a period is not a reason for children and young women to stay at home. “During that time when the girl has her period, she’ll go where there’s a lot of sand. She takes a lot of showers,” explains mother Lomali Sara.
Aidlink’s school feeding programme is another pull factor. “Whenever they know there is food at school they go to school,” says Jerry Ekimwomwor, a field officer for GCN in Turkana.
It’s working too. In 2019 alone, Aidlink supported 5,793 children to stay in school and helped another 147 girls enrol for the first time.
“The community are very happy; it makes a difference. Our children have something to eat, they go to school, and they can eat,” says Lomali Sara. “We now know the importance of girls going to school. We hope and trust she (Lydia) will get a job and help to support us.”
There are a host of different reasons that cause girls to drop out of school or to never enrol in the first place, but for the girls in Aidlink supported districts like Turkana, there are now fewer.
It’s a fragile win, though. The United Nations Population Fund estimates that Covid-19 “is likely to have a significant impact on the implementation of interventions to reduce child marriage, in particular as a result of the social distancing requirements implemented in many countries.”
Further, the pandemic induced economic downturn is expected to push vulnerable families deeper into poverty, leaving girls exposed to archaic cultural practices. “Should the reduction in GDP per capita be 10 per cent, then an estimated 5.6 million additional child marriages are likely to take place between 2020 and 2030.”
“When the family is not able… you know, they (girls) normally work,” Lomali Sara concedes.
For now, Lydia has her sights set on becoming a doctor. Like many girls her age who have made it so far in school, she has a strong belief in the power of education to break her out of poverty.