On COVID-19 – An Interview with Miss Kibera, Joyce Wanjiru

Joyce Wanjiru, 29, is the current Miss Kibera, the annual contest held in Kibera to recognise young leaders in the community. She runs the Beyond the Scars mentorship programme where she talks to and mentors young people on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). She is the latest Kibera-based Champion to speak to us about how the COVID-19 has affected her community.

How important is access to family planning services in your community?

Joyce Wanjiru, photographed by Brian Otieno for DSW.

Access to family planning services in our community is important because we are a highly-populated area and we have a scarcity of resources. Most families eat hand to mouth, so they need to access family planning services to manage the number of family members that they have in each household. Most homes here are single rooms and you find one family has a mother and father plus eight children, and they access basic needs, education and all the other commodities that they need. I believe that it’s important for our community to have family planning measures so that families can afford to lead full lives.

Family planning is important in the community because, as a couple, you should discuss how many kids you want to have and that’s going to help you in planning in the household. Some families are vulnerable; they have to plan how many kids they are going to have according to how much they can afford for these children. It is important because if you have many children without knowing how you are going to raise them, this causes conflicts and misunderstandings in the family. It’s better when couples come together to plan how many kids they are going to have depending on how they can provide for their children.

Young people in Kibera are able to access family planning and contraception services at health care facilities that have been set up all around the slum. They can get various contraceptive methods there, but most of them don’t know they should go to these facilities because they have not been empowered; they don’t know the importance of contraceptives and also some of them are scared to be judged by whomever they find at the facilities. They are scared that they will be judged by the whole community. For this reason, most of them don’t reach out to health care services or to departments that offer these services, for example, access to condoms, pills and other contraceptives measures that have been put in place. It’s the responsibility of sexually active young people that they go to these facilities and get contraceptives to protect themselves.

How are you feeling now considering COVID-19?

I am not feeling so good because we cannot do many of the things we used to do. It’s not life as usual for me. I feel life has changed because COVID-19 is something that we had not planned for and it’s not easy. We used to wake up and interact with people but now it’s not the same anymore.

Can you still access information on SRHR at this time?

Yes, we can still access information on SRHR right now, but if we had classes we would also hold empowerments lessons on life skills and sessions about reproductive health. We are not meeting right now so it’s not easy to access this information and you realise that lots of people are using ZOOM meetings, but most people here in Kibera cannot access the internet and cannot have these meetings to share what they are going through during this time.

A lot of people are struggling and suffering in their homes because they don’t have that talk therapy. We used to have one-on-one therapy but right now it’s not like that because of the social distancing and other necessary measures that the government has put in place to curb COVID-19.

What has changed since the beginning of the pandemic?

A lot of things have changed regarding sexual and reproductive health right now because you realise that men used to go to work, whereas right now they are not going to work and they have frustrations about being at home and they take it out on their wives and children. Right now, there is a lot of sexual abuse and gender-based violence because a lot of people are experiencing mental health issues. Some children are suffering from sexual abuse and the perpetrators are free. These children are at risk because everyone is at home with little to do.

What would you like to see during this time?

During this pandemic, I would like to see that as a woman my rights are being respected. No man is allowed to force another person into sex without their consent. Sexual violence and sexual abuse should be punished. Every person that is taking advantage of someone should be punished by law.

I know that a lot of girls are going through abuse and gender-based violence and I would like to see that the government is enhancing and ensuring that the rights of women and men are respected regardless of their social class, finances and wherever they come from. I believe that every human being has rights. A man has rights and a woman has rights. We are all the same and we deserve equal rights and equal justice.

What worries you the most?

Joyce Wanjiru, photographed by Brian Otieno for DSW.

During the COVID-19 pandemic what is worrying me most is the fact that a lot of people have lost their jobs and even the breadwinners right now cannot put food on the table. As a result, many people are going through mental health issues. And when it comes to sexual rights, you find that teenage girls are having sex to get food for the family, sanitary towels and other basic needs. Some come from vulnerable families; they are living with their grandparents and there is nothing that they can do. The pandemic is also going to put many people at risk of contracting HIV because people are having irresponsible sex to meet their basic needs so that is worrying. The government should put measures in place to help the vulnerable families curb this pandemic.

How do you see the future?

How I see the future, the next four or five months… as we all know, the numbers are not decreasing but increasing so if we are going to be irresponsible and not follow the government guidelines or the measures that have been put in place, then the numbers are going to continue to increase and we are going to put ourselves at more risk and on a mission of no return. People are going to die and more people will be infected by the virus and the economy will suffer. More people are going to be jobless. Many have already been put on hold in their places of work, schools are closed, businesses are not running and a lot of things are not happening, but still we are not obeying safety measures. Simple things like keeping social distancing, washing our hands with soap and water and ensuring we do what we are supposed to do like sanitizing and seeking medical attention will help us fight this pandemic rather than ignoring it and thinking that it’s not there. The coronavirus is there and many countries are suffering and many people have died. If we don’t follow the rules, we put ourselves hugely at risk.

How is COVID-19 impacting SRHR?

Before COVID-19, there was easy access to SRHR information. You would find a lot of groups and NGOs coming together to give basic information that people need. There was a lot of information to be found in youth groups, women’s groups and men’s groups. They all discussed issues around their rights and sexual and reproductive health. Some contraceptives were also issued in these groups. There were fewer instances of sexual abuse and teenage pregnancy because there was access to information. Since COVID-19 hit us, most young people are not getting the necessary information; most are not at school and there is no one to tell them that it is important to be responsible if they choose to have sex by using protection such as condoms, pills and other measures like injections.

What advice would you give to women and young girls?

If I was given a chance to advise young girls and women, I would say that when you empower a woman, you empower an entire nation. There is nothing an empowered woman cannot do, nothing she cannot conquer and nothing she cannot achieve as long as she puts her heart into it. Most girls have the mind-set that they cannot make it in life because of their background. If I didn’t believe in myself, maybe I would be a school dropout but somebody believed in me and gave me a platform. If your parents are giving you the chance to go to school, go to school. Everything has a season. We are skipping seasons. You want to be married while you are in school and you want to have a better life when you cannot afford a sanitary towel. It starts with believing in yourself. Go out of your way to look for mentors and people that can walk with you on this journey of life. When you do that, you become a better person but not a bitter person.

Photographs and videos by Brian Otieno for DSW.

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