Daily life is rapidly changing in many parts of the world due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, Uganda is also experiencing the impacts of the pandemic as it confirmed its first cases in mid-March and measures such as school closures, a national lockdown and curfew, and the banning of public transport have been implemented to prevent community spread.
(Closed shop in the Luzira community)
In light of this development and our commitment to building a healthy community and team, all our school-based and community activities are postponed until further notice, including our Big Sister Camp that was due to take place in May. GUIU has also closed its offices and our team is working remotely until April 20th, or later if needed.
Since the outbreak reached Uganda, we have been working with our partners to best support the health, wellbeing, and safety of our girls, youth, and communities during this challenging time. For already at-risk girls living in urban slum areas, COVID-19 presents an increased risk for violence, abuse, and neglect while their parents struggle to purchase enough food and sanitation products.
We recognize the importance of a gender-responsive approach to COVID-19 as crises exacerbate existing gender inequalities and have a disproportionate impact on girls and women, particularly amongst the poorest and most socially marginalized groups. This approach means that GUIU’s response promotes gender equality; supports the unique needs of women and girls, especially related to sexual and reproductive health (SRH); and provides equal social and economic benefits for men and women.
Poverty is Gendered
GUIU’s office is based in the Luzira slum community, and targets at-risk adolescent girls and youth living in these areas of Kampala. According to the UN Habitat (2006), 60% of Kampala’s residents live in informal settlements (slums), which are highly populated residential urban areas. Social distancing is difficult to achieve in these communities because many families live in close proximity to their neighbors and other family members within their homes. Therefore, residents face an increased risk of the spread of infectious disease.
These communities are also particularly vulnerable to infectious disease given that they often lack access to running and clean water, soap, and other sanitation facilities. According to UNICEF (2019), 82% of Ugandans do not have access to improved sanitation facilities, three out of ten Ugandan households do not have a latrine, and two thirds of households across the country do not wash their hands with soap. With only 8% of mothers of children under the age of five having soap and water readily available, these families face barriers in following the hygiene guidelines recommended by the Ugandan Ministry of Health during the pandemic.
Furthermore, our communities are more vulnerable to the economic effects of the pandemic as they are more at risk of losing their regular income and their ability to provide basic needs for their families due to the physical distancing’ measures implemented by the Ugandan government. More than 21% of Ugandans currently live in poverty (UBOS, 2018), with higher numbers in urban slum areas, meaning that there is less economic resilience in the face of a crisis.
(Busy taxi park before the national lockdown)
The majority of the parents and youth that we work with have informal employment, for example operating public transport such as taxis and boda-bodas, and running small businesses such as market stalls, tailoring shops, and salons. Women are also more likely to work in these informal and low paid jobs, and therefore, their specific needs must be taken into account in gender-responsive crisis and recovery planning.
Due to income instability, families have few or little savings to fall back on during challenging times. Consequently, many families living in Kampala’s slums are currently struggling to cover the costs of basic necessities since they are unable to earn from their usual income-generating activities. These circumstances are further exacerbated by a rise in food prices. Our Program Director, Clare Tusingwire, has seen the effects of the lockdown first hand. She told us:
"I’m picturing the homes where it has already been hard to get necessities on normal days even without COVID-19. The situation is made worse since parents can’t make income anymore, especially those that had informal jobs in the markets. The girls are at home with no access to school, no pads, and fewer meals because at school, the girls can access food and a better, safer environment.”
Challenges to Accessing SRH Services
Dr. Natalia Kanem, UNFPA Executive Director underlined the need for a gender-responsive approach to COVID-19:
“This pandemic has severely disrupted access to life-saving sexual and reproductive health services.”
Due to the pandemic and measures to contain its spread, institutions and systems that protect women and girls, such as women-led organizations, local authorities, and community structures have shut their doors and have a reduced capacity to respond to gender-based violence.
More women and girls are now isolated within their homes where they are at a higher risk of being abused by family members in a period of heightened tension. Research shows that this is one of the biggest fears of adolescent girls during a crisis (Plan International, 2018). Also, mobility restrictions implemented due to the pandemic affect girls’ and women’s’ access to essential resources and services such as HIV medication and counseling, family planning, and ante-natal checks during pregnancy.
(Our community SRHR health camps that we organize are now postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic)
Furthermore, at-risk adolescent girls in Kampala are facing increased challenges accessing menstrual products during the pandemic, due to the adverse impact COVID-19 is having on family’s income and supply chains around the world. Sanitary pads are now more costly and less prioritized by heads of households in the current crisis. Therefore, GUIU will be distributing menstrual hygiene products to girls participating in its programs.
Additionally, it has been found that when support services are unavailable, girls are at greater risk of unwanted pregnancy. In Sierra Leone during the Ebola outbreak, “a reported increase in adolescent pregnancies during the outbreak has been attributed largely to the closure of schools,” and many girls did not return to school after the outbreak, with a 16% decline in re-enrollment rates once schools were reopened (UNDP, 2015).
Similarly, girls are at an increased risk of child marriage because families who lose their incomes are often more likely to marry their daughters to alleviate financial challenges. Since schools are vital safe spaces that protect girls and give them access to help and advice through their teachers, the closure of schools and girls traveling back to their villages reverses gains made in girls' education and empowerment. It is therefore key that we act to reduce the long-term consequences of the pandemic beyond the period of school closures.
However, on a positive note, UNDP researchers found that girls in villages where there had been girls’ empowerment groups experienced fewer of these negative impacts. This shows that GUIU’s focus on empowering girls and equipping them with life skills through the Adolescent Girl’s Program (AGP) is key in improving girls’ resilience and reducing their vulnerability during crises.
To ensure that at-risk adolescent girls and youth are supported and protected during the COVID-19 pandemic, our office numbers remain open and our coaches are available on phone for girls and youth participating in our programs to contact us to share their concerns or ask any questions they may have relating to their sexual and reproductive health. We are also continuing to share key accurate information on how to access services and prevent infection during the pandemic through our social media channels.
(Girl Up Big Sister enjoying a snack during the Big Sister Camp 2019)
In response to the challenges presented by COVID-19 in our communities, GUIU has also created a gender-responsive plan to respond to the specific needs of our adolescent girls and their families during this time. As a community-based organization, we are able to reach the most vulnerable through working with our existing community partners.