On COVID-19 – An Interview with Valerie Kwena, Advocate for Women’s Rights in Kibera

Valerie Kwena, 27, is an advocate for the rights of women and girls and also the co-founder of the grassroots organisation called M.A.D (Making A Difference) Sisters, which is based and operating in Kibera, Nairobi, Kenya. She shared her experience with how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected her work and community.

How is COVID-19 impacting SRHR?

Valeria Kwena, photographed by Brian Otieno for DSW.

Women are having difficulty accessing family planning services in the midst of the pandemic.[1] In Kibera, most women use the 3-month injection Depo-Provera but, due to COVID-19, most local clinics close at 6.30 in the evening. This means that if your Depo-Provera appointment was in the evening, your appointment is not going to take place. Not having that opportunity puts you at risk of not having the strength to control your sexual desires and means you are not able to have sex when you want to because of the fear of maybe getting pregnant. The accessibility of this service has gone down and most women are facing a great challenge because the friendly clinics operate maybe until 4.00 p.m., and even then these clinics have shifted their focus to COVID-19 at the moment. They have forgotten that there are women and girls that need to access other services.

We don’t want COVID-19 to spread, we want to flatten the curve, but some things have been forgotten in the process of fighting COVID-19. We will manage to flatten the curve but, as a result, sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) will be infringed upon and we will go back where we were five years ago.

How is COVID-19 affecting you?

Personally, COVID-19 has affected me because what I do is socially related and I am not able to do what I love anymore. My sisters and I at M.A.D (Making a Difference) Sisters meet our girls every weekend and we have home visits to see their parents every other weekend, but the social connection that we built with the girls and their parents is slowly deteriorating because they were used to seeing our faces every week. This is careful social interaction and our activities are normally social – we have safe spaces and the girls come here to get an opportunity to mingle and interact and play games with others. We also have exchange programs to meet other groups. Now all of our activities have been affected by COVID-19.

What worries you most about COVID-19?

What worries me the most is when we don’t know when the pandemic going to end. We always see in the news that we need to flatten the curve. Not many youths are dying but it is them that must flatten the curve, so my greatest worry is when this curve is going to be flattened? Are we going to live with COVID-19 for the rest of our lives? Since it’s here now, is it going to be with us forever? Are we going to be locked down forever or are we going to go back to our normal lives?

How do you see the future?

Valeria Kwena, photographed by Brian Otieno for DSW.

The future is going to be hectic because the economy has taken a hit, and when the economy is hit it means money is not there. Kibera is an informal settlement where the flow of money was not there in the first place. Most people in Kibera live from hand to mouth, so it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Getting back on our feet again is going to be a great challenge. I think most people are going to suffer, especially women and girls because they are vulnerable. The vulnerability of women and girls is going to increase and the weakened economy is going to be a challenge for them because you need money to access sanitary towels. Without money, you are going to lack something essential and you are not going to be able to live up to your full potential.

What would you like to see to ensure that your rights are protected?

Most of the stakeholders and policymakers have shifted their gear right now. Everyone is looking to COVID-19 and forgetting that there is another elephant in the room: women and girls’ access to essential services.[2] I want the policymakers and stakeholders who are helping us curb the spread of COVID-19 not to forget the women and children in the community who are suffering. Domestic violence is on the rise right now and vulnerable women don’t have anywhere to run to because there is a curfew in place, so let us not shift gears completely.

Right now, every person in the community is buying food and soap. Everything is targeted towards slowing the spread of COVID-19, but what about the needs of women and young girls in the community? We might end up curbing COVID-19 but, looking back, there will be a great backslide on SRHR issues. To all stakeholders and policymakers, do what you have to do but do not forget to look at the needs of the women and young girls.

What is the situation with teenage pregnancy in your community?

Teenage pregnancy has always been a challenge in Kibera and most of the informal settlements in Kenya. Teenage pregnancy happens because of poverty and because girls are forced into sex by their partner. In most cases, you’ll find that the male partner is older than the girl. This happens due to a lack of basic needs, such as access to sanitary towels. The girl opts to reach out to a male person who looks like they have more money than she does in her family, so this man agrees to help but needs something in return. What can she offer? She doesn’t have money, so she will have to agree to sex. This pressure to have sex might lead to an unintended pregnancy. Another thing that leads to teenage pregnancy is sexual abuse. This is a great challenge.

Because of COVID-19, people are idle, men are staying home, girls are not going to school, and there is a lot of free time. With no distractions, people will have a lot of sex, which could result in an unintended pregnancy and lead to early marriage. If the COVID-19 pandemic was not happening, people would be busy hustling trying to make money and girls would not have to seek help from someone because schools and social gatherings would be open and they would be able to get their sanitary towels.

[1] An official report from the Council of Governors from May 27, 2020 confirms that family planning (FP) services are significantly impacted by emergences, resulting in women of reproductive age not having access to the FP services they need. After the first COVID-19 case in Kenya was confirmed in March 2020, April 2020 shows a drop in the receipt of FP commodities in almost all counties.

[2] The official report indicates that between January and May 2020, there was a “drop in immunization of children, the demand for reproductive health and other services, care for chronic illnesses, [that] could be attributed to the emergence of this new pandemic.” It has been agreed that each County Government should put in place measures to balance the COVID-19 response with the continuity of essential health services to address the impact of COVID-19 on reproductive, maternal and child health.

Photographs and videos by Brian Otieno for Right By Her partner DSW.

The Right By Her campaign is run by a consortium of eight partners working across Africa to improve the realities of women and girls in Africa in four key areas: gender-based violence against women (GVAW), harmful practices such as child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM), HIV & AIDS, and sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR).

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