At the girls’ rescue house down the quiet end of a dusty road in Narok County, Kenya, there are girls who are friends, and then there are Purity and Lucy. Sisters, they both say. Purity is 17; Lucy, 19. Where Purity is soft-spoken and shy, Lucy is gregarious and funny, with expressive eyebrows and a sardonic affect. When she smiles—and she smiles a lot—the corners of her mouth turn almost vertical, and her cheeks, still freckled with teenage acne, go full and flush. Purity is slender as tall grass, with glowing skin and a gap in her lower teeth that she habitually pokes her tongue through. Both grew up in traditional Masai communities, in different areas that are within striking distance of Masai Mara National Reserve, a game park that, in normal times, draws hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. Neither one’s parents went to school; Purity and Lucy were set to be among the first generation of girls in their communities to graduate from high school, maybe even from college.
Lucy wants to study the moon and become an astronaut. Purity has dreams, too, but she doesn’t talk about them much anymore. Both girls left their homes years ago, fleeing forced marriages and, for Lucy, the genital mutilation that traditionally precedes matrimony in their communities. Purity was cut when she was 10. (For privacy reasons, I’m identifying them and some others in the story only by first name or a pseudonym.)
When Covid-19 led the Kenyan government to shutter schools and ban large gatherings, the operators of the rescue house—a nonprofit shelter that offers girls a base where they can live and from which they can go to school—had little choice but to comply. The risk that a deadly disease could rip through the crowded dormitories and infect scores of girls with little access to health care was too high to do otherwise. The operators secured promises from the girls’ families that they would be treated well and sent them home. Purity and Lucy left in March 2020, returning to homes where their fathers drank heavily, often became violent, and routinely kicked them out, forcing the girls to sleep in the bush. Each felt lucky when a man from the community approached her, offering a little food, shelter, and money. Almost a year after leaving the rescue house, Purity and Lucy returned, both just weeks away from giving birth.
Lucy hoped she could leave her baby with her mother and continue going to school. Purity didn’t have a relative who could help, but she was determined to give her child resources and an education she hadn’t had. “I don’t want him or her to be like me,” she says. So she’d need to make money. Her plan was to become a tailor; she’d start by sewing tidy school uniforms for other people’s children.
Kenya, like most countries in subSaharan Africa, has so far been spared the worst of Covid. As of Jan. 3, the country of about 55 million people had seen more than 285,000 confirmed cases and nearly 5,400 deaths. These numbers are almost certainly undercounted, but for comparison, Spain, with about 47 million people, had recorded more than 6 million Covid cases and nearly 90,000 deaths. The reasons for the discrepancy aren’t fully understood, but age seems to be a significant factor: The median Kenyan is 20 years old, while the median Spaniard is almost 44. Kenyans are also less likely to suffer from other Covid risk factors, such as cancer, diabetes, or respiratory illness. The country is among the least urbanized in the world, decreasing the potential for close- quarters transmission, and its weather allows people to spend more time outside, where the risk of infection is lower.
On the other hand, more than a third of Kenyans live in poverty, and the country has a fragile health-care system that could easily be overwhelmed by the virus. That led the government to proceed with abundant caution, closing schools from March 2020 through January 2021 and instituting a series of strict curfews, international travel bans, and county-specific lockdowns. The measures helped keep infection rates low, but they brought their own perils, including widespread food insecurity, rampant domestic violence, and surging unemployment. The disruptions hit women harder than men, and girls harder than boys.
“Covid was the most difficult thing we had to face and that we still face,” says Kakenya Ntaiya, an educator who grew up in a Masai community and was engaged by the time she was 5 years old. Decades ago, Ntaiya persuaded her father to let her defer her engagement and continue her schooling, eventually going to college in the U.S. When she returned to Kenya, she started a nongovernmental organization called Kakenya’s Dream, which runs a boarding school for at-risk Masai girls, similar to the school Purity and Lucy attend.
“For the first time, our students were home for nine months or more without that safe space,” Ntaiya says. “When you look at a girl going from having a place where she can jump rope and play and her only responsibility is to go to class, to back home where she’s now responsible for cooking for the others, taking care of the family, collecting firewood, getting water, and in the evening she doesn’t have her own space, there’s a bedroom with the little siblings, she’s not invited to sit in the big house, which is the father’s house, she’s in the kitchen— that was really harsh.”
The extent of the indirect damage Covid has brought is difficult to measure. What’s known so far, though, suggests that it could outweigh the disease’s direct effects in Kenya and many other African nations. The economic and social fallout of shutdowns is concentrated among the young, and almost a quarter of Kenya’s population is between 10 and 19. Purity, Lucy, and their peers have been hit by a shadow epidemic ripping through developing countries—pushing girls out of school, decreasing their earning potential, putting them at greater risk of violence, and potentially shortening their lives and those of their children.
The question now is whether there’s still time for recovery, or whether the pandemic has set girls’ progress back a generation. “Very simply, we know that adolescence is a critical moment in life for girls: It’s when many health problems either emerge or are averted, and many social ones, too,” says Lauren Rumble, a principal adviser for gender equality at Unicef. This, she says, is the time to get it right, because “if we get it wrong, we know they are going to live poorer, shorter lives.”
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