Futures destroyed: COVID-19 unleashes 'shadow pandemics' on Africa's girls

Until the new coronavirus hit Kenya in March, 17-year-old schoolgirl Anna believed the world was hers for the taking.

It didn't matter that she lived in a tiny shack with her mother, who single-handedly raised three children by washing clothes for 1,500 Kenyan shillings ($14) a week.

With strong grades in English and chemistry, the determined teen aspired to finish her education and become a television presenter. She would buy a house for her mother and support her sister and baby brother through school.

Now, four months pregnant, Anna sits on the edge of the bed of her one-room home in Nairobi's sprawling informal settlement of Kibera, facing an uncertain future.

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Low levels of testing in most nations mean infection rates are likely to be higher, say health experts, adding it is hard to determine when countries will reach a peak in transmission.

"When my school closed because of the virus, I was at home doing nothing so I started going around with a man who was a friend and we had sex," said Anna, whose named has been changed to protect her identity.

"I missed my period and realised I was pregnant. Now I sit here all day thinking about how frustrated I am with my life. I feel like I have destroyed my future."

From rape and sexual exploitation to female genital mutilation (FGM), child marriage and early pregnancy, COVID-19 has unleashed a myriad of "shadow pandemics" on girls across Africa, say child rights groups.

Africa's confirmed coronavirus caseload has reached almost 1.2 million cases, with more than 26,000 deaths, according to the Africa Union's Centre for Disease Control.

Low levels of testing in most nations mean infection rates are likely to be higher, say health experts, adding it is hard to determine when countries will reach a peak in transmission.

School closures have left girls open to sexual violence from family, neighbours and community members; lockdown poverty has forced minors into transactional sex to buy basics, they add.

Uncertain when schools will resume, desperate families have resorted to marrying off under-age daughters to ease expenses - with some girls undergoing FGM as part of traditional customs.

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Africa also has the highest rates of early pregnancies in the world. In 2018, the estimated adolescent birth rate in West and Central Africa was 115 births per 1,000 girls aged 15 to 19, compared to a global rate of 44 births.

Countries such as Kenya, Malawi and Ethiopia are reporting spikes in teen pregnancies and early marriages, raising fears many girls may not ever return to school - and jeopardising decades of work to reverse deep-rooted gender inequalities.

"There are serious concerns about the shadow pandemics that have come with COVID-19 such as sexual and gender-based violence and teen pregnancies," said Kate Maina-Vorley, country director for the children's charity Plan International in Kenya.

"There has to be a recognition that some of the gains made in terms of delivering for girls and their rights have been eroded, and if it is not deliberately addressed in a concerted manner, we will not be fit for purpose in a post-COVID world."

'Dire web of vulnerabilities'

Women and girls across Africa face challenges in securing the most basic rights - from accessing education and health services to violence, forced marriage and early motherhood.

The United Nations says 23 per cent of girls on the continent are not in primary school against 19 per cent of boys. Nearly four in 10 girls marry before turning 18, according to the World Bank.

Africa also has the highest rates of early pregnancies in the world. In 2018, the estimated adolescent birth rate in West and Central Africa was 115 births per 1,000 girls aged 15 to 19, compared to a global rate of 44 births.

Child rights groups say fallout from the pandemic has further worsened girls' lot - particularly the closure of schools, seen as safe spaces for children.

In Kenya, a national helpline supported by the department of gender affairs reported a more than 10-fold increase in calls - with 1,108 calls in the month of June compared to just 86 in February. Many were reports of child rape.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says of 39 countries surveyed in sub-Saharan Africa, only six have fully reopened schools. In Kenya, the government has cancelled the entire school year, with a plan to resume in January.

A report on Wednesday by Plan International and the African Child Policy Forum found school closures had forced more than 120 million girls across the region to stay home, many isolated and susceptible to abuse or peer-to-peer sex.

"The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated and added yet another layer of vulnerability to an already dire web of vulnerabilities of girls in the African continent," said the report.

"Millions of girls have been deprived of access to food, basic healthcare and protection and thousands exposed to abuse and exploitation."

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There is no accurate data on the number of girls abused, but calls to helplines have surged in countries such as Tunisia, Niger, South Africa, Uganda, Malawi and Somalia.

In Kenya, a national helpline supported by the department of gender affairs reported a more than 10-fold increase in calls - with 1,108 calls in the month of June compared to just 86 in February. Many were reports of child rape.

With families unable to earn in lockdown, girls are married for a dowry or engage in transactional sex, exploited by neighbours, drivers or other locals - just to buy food.

No return to school

Campaigners in Kenya, Sudan, Somalia, Guinea and Burkina Faso fear hundreds of girls have also undergone FGM, with families taking advantage of lockdowns to prepare their daughters for marriage.

Reports of adolescent pregnancies, child and forced marriages have also sky-rocketed.

"As child marriage and pregnancy rise, girls will have an even harder time going back to school when it reopens, undoing precious gains in girls' education."

Authorities in Ethiopia have rescued more than 500 girls from child marriage since the pandemic shut its schools.

In Malawi, helplines run by the charity YONECO reported an 83% rise in calls linked to child and forced marriages from April to June compared to the same period last year.

Amos Zaindi, Malawi head for the charity CARE International, said the country was experiencing widespread child marriage before the pandemic, with about half of girls wed before 18.

"Now with schools closed and increased poverty, the situation is getting worse," said Zaindi in a statement.

"As child marriage and pregnancy rise, girls will have an even harder time going back to school when it reopens, undoing precious gains in girls' education."

Teen pregnancies and early marriage stifle a girl's progress in education, health and employment, also hampering the development of her children, say health experts.

This also has economic consequences, says the World Bank, with African countries losing at least $60 billion in lifetime earnings - more than what the world gives the continent in aid annually.

A child bride is more likely to quit school, endure problems in pregnancy and childbirth and is at high risk of domestic violence. Her children are also lucky to survive beyond five.

This also has economic consequences, says the World Bank, with African countries losing at least $60 billion in lifetime earnings - more than what the world gives the continent in aid annually.

"It's not just a problem about young girls, it's a problem for the entire society," said Ademola Olajide, country head of the U.N. Population Fund in Kenya.

"Everyone will pay a price," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The WHO and the UN children's agency, UNICEF, say school closures have helped keep children safe from the virus, but admit it harms them in other ways.

The organisations are urging African governments to promote the safe reopening of schools, while taking measures to limit the spread of the virus - even as cases continue to climb.

"The long-term impact of extending the school shutdown risks ever greater harm to children, their future and their communities," Mohamed M. Malick Fall, UNICEF's regional director for Eastern and Southern Africa, said in a statement.

"When we balance the harm being done to children locked out of schools, and if we follow the evidence, it leads children back into the classroom."

But for girls like Anna, it may already be too late.

"If the coronavirus did not happen, I would have been at school and not expecting a baby," she said. "I would like to go back to school, but I don't know if it is possible."