COVID-19 disproportionately impacts child marriage survivors and girls at risk.
For the already vulnerable communities served directly by Too Young to Wed (TYTW), the global COVID-19 pandemic has brought extraordinary new challenges. The spread of the disease has levied catastrophic consequences on the vulnerable girls and young women we work to empower: child marriage, abduction, trafficking, and female genital mutilation (FGM) survivors in Yemen, Nigeria, Kenya, and Nepal. As national and local lockdowns continue, the widespread closures of schools, girls’ centers, and emergency shelters endanger girls, forcibly living back in harmful situations from which they had previously fled.
TYTW’s Emergency COVID-19 Health and Safety Initiative provides vital supports to mitigate health and safety risks in the affected areas, expanding programming in each of TYTW’s target countries.
Following global trends to contain the spread of coronavirus, the Kenyan government ordered the shutdown of schools as well as density reduction measures, impacting the 330 girls served through our field partner Samburu Girls Foundation (SGF), and ordering nearly all girls staying at the center to return to their home communities. While the closure of schools and other safe institutions like the girls’ center has meant varying challenges for families across the globe, in Kenya and the other regions in which TYTW works, it means the girls are now once again vulnerable to forced marriages, FGM, and other harmful practices.
TYTW mobilized immediately to inject urgently needed resources for sanitizing, food, medical support, staff logistical capacity and transportation, improved safety programming, and more. We increased staff capacity in Kenya to support alternative safe placements and safe stay arrangements for girls in the most dangerous situations, increased case management and monitoring through home visits, and increased community reconciliation measures which include a signed family agreement on no harmful practices, in order to facilitate the safest possible living situation transitions for the girls.
TYTW enacted immediate health measures as well, distributing 1,040 sanitary towels, 208 educational flyers, 208 liters of handwashing soap, and setting up 104 handwashing stations. All casework home visits include distribution of COVID-19 prevention kits, which include instructions and supplies for setting up handwashing stations and safety information translated into local languages. TYTW funded an emergency motorbike purchase for SGF, helping to save the organization countless funds on vehicle rentals, while significantly increasing their transportation capacity to respond to urgent safety situations and needs that arise. TYTW’s field staff worked through many barriers and safety threats to reach the girls and families, traveling 2300 miles in hazardous conditions to reach the most vulnerable communities in remote areas, including 7 flooded roads, 4 elephant territories with high probability of attack, and areas of high crime activity.
TYTW, in collaboration with SGF, conducted home visits for 104 of the most vulnerable girls across three counties, narrowly preventing several girls from being cut or married off. For at least 5 of the girls (as young as 10 years of age), TYTW’s field team successfully intercepted family plans for FGM or child marriage during the first round of visits, placing the girls in alternative safe living arrangements. Many additional families who were seriously considering marrying off their daughters reported having a change of heart, ultimately deciding against early marriage. Still, rates of FGM skyrocketed in the country and two beneficiaries admitted during our home visits to witnessing first-hand mass FGM ceremonies of 20-30 girls at a time. For those not able to return to their communities due to threat of violence, 27 girls (the youngest at 10 years of age) were placed in alternative-stay arrangements and TYTW will continue to closely monitor them in order to ensure their ongoing safety.
TYTW mobilized emergency intervention measures to halt planned mass forced female genital mutilation (FGM) of young girls, a precursor practice to marriages. Mobilizing nearly 500 interventions to reported cases of FGM and child marriage, TYTW and our partners have ensured rigorous monitoring by the appropriate authorities, like the local County police, Gender Department, and Anti-FGM Board.
At the start of the pandemic, TYTW took the proactive measure of launching a Public Service Announcement (PSA) radio campaign, imploring families not to force their young daughters into marriage and FGM. The PSA campaign began in early April with an hour-long moderated discussion on Maralal’s Serian FM radio station addressing increases in gender-based violence in the wake of COVID-19 and the collective responsibility of the entire community to protect girls’ safety and hold perpetrators of violence accountable. The discussion engaged multiple high-level stakeholders and leaders, including child marriage survivor and TYTW scholarship recipient Nachaki; Dr. Josephine Kulea (founder of SGF); Kenya’s Anti-FGM Board CEO Bernadette Loloju; and Maralal Chief Dominick Lempara. The segment aired during a prime-time evening slot Easter weekend and reached hundreds of thousands of local households in the northern pastoralist communities of Kenya, where local experts estimate as many of 50% of girls are forced into marriage before their 12th birthdays.
In Nigeria, where TYTW continues its partnership with the Intercommunity Development Social Organization (IDS) to support Boko Haram abduction survivors--some of the most deeply traumatized women and children in the world--we have launched a special initiative to simultaneously address the issues of pressing institutional health needs amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and individual economic security for the most vulnerable.
TYTW previously provided seamstress vocational training and funds for sewing machines to a subset of the survivors who had expressed interest in tailoring. At the height of the pandemic, TYTW’s beneficiaries employed their professional skills to help produce more than 1,000 masks per day, for free distribution to medical professionals as well as vulnerable women/girls affected by this humanitarian emergency. The mask-makers received monetary compensation for their production, helping to address an urgent economic security gap that threatens the women’s personal safety in the event of lost income, an anticipated consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic (Women who struggle financially are more likely to be forced into dangerous living situations). Additionally, all mask materials are sourced from local Nigerian markets, helping to serve as a stimulus for the local economy during a time of global financial crisis.
Among COVID-19’s many health threats, the pandemic has also worsened child hunger and malnutrition, reduced water access, and increased gender-based violence (including child marriages) as the widespread closures of schools remove access to vital resources. The shuttering of schools in Yemen--where Too Young to Wed (TYTW) helped support more than 1000 vulnerable girls and boys with daily school breakfasts before the pandemic--has left many children hungry, losing access to the only meal many would eat in a day.
TYTW has been working in Yemen for the last two years, bringing daily complete breakfasts to girls attending the Abdulla Al Baradoni School in Sana'a prior to the pandemic, as a preventative measure to keep girls in school and out of child marriages. Child marriage is often employed by families out of financial desperation, and only offers short-term economic relief. With our grassroots partner Solidarios Sin Fronteras (SSF), we have pivoted the program to focus on safe, sanitary meal delivery to the girls’ households, increasing access to clean water, and health education, in order to focus on the sanitary provision of the most urgent needs to children and families during the pandemic.
During a pandemic, hygiene and sanitation are matters of life and death. TYTW’s emergency water initiative ensures sanitary provision of the most fundamental of all human needs, clean and safe water. TYTW’s water initiative in partnership with SSF refills 21 water tanks (14 tanks in Raydah Camp, 7 in Arhab) twice per week. TYTW’s increased support of clean water helps support 3500 internally displaced persons throughout multiple camps – mostly consisting of women and children – where the need for improved sanitation is most urgent.
TYTW’s sanitary food distribution initiative provides hundreds of food boxes to families with children (with a typical family size being 6-8 people), who live in abandoned buildings, displacement camps, and famine-affected areas. The food boxes contain red and white flour, rice, eggs, pasta, tuna, vegetables, tagine paste, milk powder, juice, cheese in portions, oil, salt, sugar, soap, detergent, and bleach. The food and water aid packages relieve a key economic burden faced by families, which in turn helps to prevent families from forcing their young daughters into marriage in an effort to ensure their material provision. Finally, in response to the pandemic, TYTW is providing public health support comprising soaps, sanitation assistance, and public education on containment/prevention of COVID-19.
Faten, co-founder of Solidarios Sin Fronteras, brings a month's worth of food to vulnerable families in Sana'a.
In Nepal, TYTW provides assistance to Kagati village, where we have worked for the past 13 years to help change social norms and prevent child marriage. Health and sanitation status are already poor in this vulnerable community, where the community’s 2100 inhabitants are still recovering from the devastating 2015 earthquakes. Only about 50% of households have toilets, much less running water. Consequently, TYTW worked to provide soaps, sanitation measures, and public education materials distribution in local languages on containment/prevention of COVID-19 in Nepal.
We are happy to report that thus far, no coronavirus cases have been reported in Kagati Village. We are deeply grateful to our team members on the ground and to our committed donors for acting and giving so rapidly to help contain the spread of the virus.