“Very early on, we saw this coming down the pike,” he says.
Callaghan was not alone.
Not only out of fear that COVID-19 had the potential to knock out large populations of the African continent, but also what it could mean for women and children.
“It was always clear that the moment there was identification of lockdowns, we knew that that would have significant consequences for women and girls across the continent,” says Sunita Caminha, a policy specialist for Ending Violence Against Women at the UN Women East and Southern Africa Regional Office.
But many experts say these effects are rooted in deeper issues. COVID-19 only brought them center-stage.
One Amref Health Africa study, led by Shiphrah Kuria, MD, regional manager of the reproductive health and family planning program at Amref Health Africa, found a drop in the number of women who used or had access to critical health services, such as prenatal care, in Zambia, Uganda, and Kenya.
This was largely out of fear of getting infected inside health care facilities, findings show.
“They had a fear of contracting COVID-19 because they had minimal information about COVID-19,” says Brenda Mubita, project lead at Amref Health Africa and co-leader on the study.
“The issue is that already, women and girls were facing challenges in accessing those basic services for safe childbirth,” Caminha says. “The restrictions created a situation where they were less inclined, also they had fewer supports, to access those services.”
The pandemic has also resulted in fewer women using or having access to birth control.
“In places like Kenya, we are seeing thousands and thousands of girls in teenage pregnancies and marriages, which would have never happened if the normal structure would have been there,” Callaghan says. “I don’t think it’s just kids that are bored.”
Money troubles play a big role, says Vivian Onano, a humanitarian and social entrepreneur.
Onano, who is from Kenya, says that schools being closed put many young girls in risky situations, especially with men taking advantage of their struggles.
“There have been really sad cases of girls who relied on school for sanitary towels [pads],” Onano says. “So, they sell their bodies for little money. There are a lot of taxi guys who will give you 50 shillings, and they will have sex with you unprotected. At the end of the day, you’re going to fall pregnant.”
Restrictions on movement, limiting the number of people in health care facilities, and closing public places, like markets, have had huge impacts on children’s health and nutrition and has created an even bigger problem with malnutrition, says Simeon Nanama, regional adviser of nutrition at the UNICEF West and Central Africa Regional Office.
“In the West and Central Africa region, we were expecting, in 2020, 4.1 million children with severe wasting. With COVID, food insecurity, and crisis, it’s estimated that this number increased by 19%,” he says.
Severe wasting refers to children that have become too thin due to malnutrition, which can lead to death.
Being vocal about these issues, especially to government officials, is one way to help, he says.
“The primary responsibility lies with the government,” Nanama says. “We need to continue to advocate for them to put more resources in social sectors, like child nutrition and education.”
But Africa is not alone.
This is only adds to the global issue of violence against women during the pandemic, which UN Women calls “The Shadow Pandemic.”
Findings show that 1 in 10 Senegalese, 1 in 5 Kenyans, and 1 in 3 Ugandans reported a rise in violence by their partners since the start of the pandemic, especially in households making less than $100 a month.