January 6, 2021

Study reveals stark gendered social and economic impacts of COVID-19 for youth in Kenya

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A new study on the COVID-19 pandemic in Nairobi, Kenya, released November 26th finds that the pandemic’s social and economic impact on adolescents and young adults is highly gendered, with young women and girls most affected. The study was conducted by Performance Monitoring for Action (PMA) in collaboration with the International Centre for Reproductive Health Kenya (ICRHK), Kenyatta University, and a multidisciplinary team of Johns Hopkins University faculty. The study was led by Dr. Michele Decker, Principal Investigator and Bloomberg Associate Professor of American Health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health (JHSPH), and Dr. Peter Gichangi, Kenya Principal Investigator with ICRHK.

PMA is an ongoing family planning initiative led by the Bill & Melinda Gates Institute for Population and Reproductive Health at JHSPH, with data collection in Eastern Africa, Western Africa, and Southeast Asia. With funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, this study leveraged a cohort of over 1,200 youth ages 16-26 in Nairobi, Kenya, to understand the social, economic and violence/safety implications of the COVID-19 pandemic on youth and young adults via survey research in concert with qualitative focus groups and interviews. Data collection was conducted from August to October 2020.

Results show that Nairobi youth are facing critical impacts on their livelihoods and family life since the COVID-19 restrictions began. Gender differentials are evident. Young women  report significantly more time spent on caregiving and household responsibilities as compared with young men, while young men are more likely to have given up schooling for income generation. The majority of youth (94% of women and 95% of men) experienced disruption to their formal employment or informal income generation (such as street vending), with over half (54%) of women reporting an increase in financial reliance on others since COVID-19 restrictions began, compared to 36% of men.

Dr. Decker explains, “These data echo global concerns that the social and economic disruption of the pandemic will fall more heavily on women, and we see that here for young  people.   Economic insecurity and gender-based violence loom large for young women in this crisis.”

“We still remain very concerned about the issue of economic and health impacts and mental health and safety,” said Dr. Gichangi at the local dissemination on Nov 26th. “We see important gender differences that are being amplified by COVID-19. So young women face substantial economic risks that extend financial dependence on their male partners. We also see gender differences in time use and time use substitution -- where young women tend to continue to play roles which are defined to home care and caregiving in houses, and for men income generation.”

Due to loss of income and lack of job opportunities, youth are experiencing profound financial and social distress, which has serious implications for health and safety. About half of young men and women (45% and 53% respectively) have not been able to meet their basic needs (i.e. food, rent) since the COVID-19 restrictions began. These resource constraints have exacerbated transactional sex and violence for young women in Nairobi. More than one third (36%) of young women reported one or more transactional partnerships in the past year, with financial dependence on those relationships increasing since COVID-19 restrictions.

“Male youth are reporting being… [idle] in the homes because of the COVID-19 lockdowns, which means no work, yet the female youths are reporting additional workload at the household level. This shows the unfair division of labor between men and women,” said study advisor Dr. Grace Wamue-Ngare, an associate professor at Kenyatta University with extensive gender expertise.

Intimate partner violence (IPV) has also been intensified by the COVID-19 situation. Among young women experiencing IPV both prior to and during COVID-19, almost half (49%) reporting an increase in IPV intensity since COVID-19. Dr. Leah Wanjala, Senior Lecturer at Kenyatta University, explained at the local dissemination that “intimate partner violence is a very silent issue” among youth and the larger Nairobi community. “A lot of students in our institutions of higher learning have [faced] intimate partner violence… How can we stop intimate partner violence? We need to go to the youth.” While youth expressed concern about sexual violence in the community, and at home, partner sexual violence was more commonly reported than sexual violence from non-partners.

Dr. Bernard Onyango, a senior research and policy analyst with the African Institute for Development Policy (AFIDEP), who was not involved in the study, noted in the Nov 26th  panel discussion that the study showed how the pandemic has amplified the “interconnectedness of health and economic and social wellbeing.”  He went on to note, “This study really brings that out by showing in various domains while COVID-19 was initially a health issue, it is affecting our economic wellbeing. People are losing jobs. It is affecting other domains. … The data is really amplifying some of these issues and really reminding us about why we need to [look at data]… through the gendered lens.”

Additional study results are available on the PMA Gender webpage.