How East Africa copes with COVID-19 and the new layer of challenges it poses, particularly to girls and young women

19 November 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic is unravelling decades of progress on girls' equality. To stop the setback, Plan International is working hard in different regions of the world to ensure girls, young women, children and marginalised groups are protected and supported as the COVID-19 crisis unfolds. With the EU being among the main donors in humanitarian aid, we wanted to understand from our colleagues how the pandemic is unfolding in their regions and what they believe could be done for girls and young women in their region. “While COVID-19 hits the region, food insecurity, limited access to education, protection and sexual and gender-based violence are the main concerns, further exacerbated by the pandemic, in Sudan, South Sudan and Uganda” says Maurice Onyango, Regional Head of Disaster Risk Management at Plan International’s Regional Office Middle East, Eastern & Southern Africa.

Moreover, he adds “Many adolescent girls and young women have faced challenges related to limited access to Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) services as well clean water for their personal and menstrual hygiene management. Girls’ and women’s SRHR must continue to be prioritised, funded and recognised as life-saving, along with essential health services for young children’s survival and healthy growth.”

As a result of the support received from, among others the European Union (EU), the Plan International Offices in the Middle East, Eastern and Southern Africa have been able to play a significant role when it comes to the prevention and mitigation of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact. It allowed them to address the needs of children and their families providing support in relation to education, child protection, psychosocial support and provision of child friendly spaces.

We wanted to know from our colleagues in the regional office responsible for the Middle East, Eastern and Southern Africa, what matters most according to them in their countries when it comes to overcoming COVID-19 and possible setbacks for girls’ equality.

Distribution of hygiene kits in Ethiopia
 Distribution of hygiene kits in Ethiopia

What are the main priorities for Sudan, South Sudan and Uganda this year and which issue require more attention due to COVID-19?

While COVID-19 hits the region, the main concerns are about food insecurity, limited access to education, protection and sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). These concerns are particularly exacerbated by the pandemic, in Sudan, South Sudan and Uganda.

In Sudan, we continue to witness struggles with regards to rampant economic stagflation, uneasy politics and bubbling ethnic tensions leading to significant displacements. . Specifically, the surging inflation in times of COVID-19 is increasing humanitarian needs and hampering humanitarian assistance at a time when millions of vulnerable people need this type of support the most. In addition, a lack of funding, especially for health and water, hygiene and sanitation services, is limiting aid organisations’ capacity to operate effectively. Another big challenge in Sudan is, and will continue to be in 2021, the access to food. The extremely high staple food prices in combination with the COVID-19 control measures significantly limit food access in the country. Despite all these challenges, we expect the harvests in October to begin to provide somewhat of a relief with regards to food access, reducing food insecurity for many households.

In South Sudan, we witness a continuous increase in food prices, due to a combination of high levels of internal conflicts, instable economic conditions, severe flooding and COVID-19 measures. We expect this won’t get any better over the course of next year. In addition to this, the pandemic has brought about a worrying increase in the number of unintended teenage pregnancies, causing even more stress and burden to families. It became clear that tackling Sexual and Gender Based Violence is key to ensure girls stay safe and protected. Due to such unstable settings, the most significant impacts of the pandemic and the related preventive measures had a negative impact on the country’s economic growth, slowing down trade flows, and constrained humanitarian operations, despite all the different efforts that have been done to facilitate movement. WFP and FAO have projected that South Sudan is amongst countries in Africa which are projected to be in Famine due to a toxic mix of conflict, economic decline, and the socio-economic fallout from the Coronavirus pandemic if no action is taken.

With regards to the situation in Uganda, the crisis affected predominantly the refugee response, that is being underfunded due to the overall reduction of monthly assistance from aid organisations. The country is currently hosting more than 1,420,000 refugees, due to the COVID-19 related restrictions of movement, they highly depend on food and economic assistance of local aid organisations. We are, however, hopefull that in due time the different measures will be lifted, facilitating peoples’ access to income and resources and consequently reducing the strands the crisis poses on financial resources.

In what sense are girls and young women affected or what the state of gender equality is?

Report by Plan International and the African Child Policy Forum found school closures due to Covid 19 has forced over 120 million girls across the region to stay home, many isolated and susceptible to abuse. Several countries in the region are reporting spikes in domestic violence, unintended teen pregnancies and early and enforced marriages, raising fears among many girls to not ever return to school – and jeopardising decades of work to reverse deep-rooted gender inequalities.

Moreover, alternative learning initiatives are not accessible by all girls especially those in rural and informal settlements with limited access to online resources. Girls with disability are also at great risk of getting left behind even by solutions to alternative learning. We, therefore, strongly stipulate the importance to increase the focus on the needs of children with disability in education and all other sectors as well.

Finally, many adolescent girls and young women, especially those in quarantine and isolation centres, have faced challenges related to limited access to SRHR services as well clean water for their personal and menstrual hygiene management. Girls’ and women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights must continue to be prioritised, funded and recognized as life-saving, along with essential health services for young children’s survival and healthy growth ‘Adolescent Girls in Crisis’. To reach this objective it is key to keep on listening to girls and their priorities as Plan International Uganda did with its new adolescents programming toolkit building on the outcomes they have gathered through consultations with girls and adolescents in the country.

Looking back at the past few months, what have been some of your main success in Middle East, Eastern and Southern Africa?

2020 has been a challenging year. However, thanks to some key changes we have been able to provide remote support to marginalised people all over the region and especially to women and girls setting up alternative care processes. Moreover, we have recently started to work directly with communities to provide further support in all the countries of the region in their response to COVID-19 pandemic.

Woman wearing dace mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Uganda
 Lilian wearing dace mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Uganda

COVID-19 response in Sudan and South Sudan

One of the main success of Plan International in the region is definitely related to its COVID-19 response. In Sudan, Plan International collaborated with the Ministry of Health to ensure high school students attending the Sudan’s High School Certificate Examination won’t be at risk of contracting COVID-19. Specifically, students were supported with the distribution of masks and messages highlighting the importance of social distancing. In addition to this, Plan International Sudan is currently collaborating with UNICEF to collect information on working with children and adolescents which will feed into updating Psychosocial Support guidelines. The latter will be key to support children and girls in a situation of crisis, further exacerbated by COVID-19.

As for South Sudan, Plan International COVID-19 interventions have reached a total of 520,703 direct beneficiaries. To do so, Plan International engaged with local communities to provide peer-to-peer education to disseminate messages to counter the pandemic and to curtail the increase of cases of gender-based-violence with legal provisions.

Our activities in South Sudan

Another important part of our successes in 2020 comes from projects funded by the European Union. In South Sudan, Plan International is running an EU funded Integrated Child Protection and Emergency Education Response project for marginalised children and adolescents in rural and urban locations in Yei Revier State, Eastern Equatoria. This project is responding to the increasing needs of conflict-affected children and adolescents in South Sudan, particularly IDPs and those from marginalised host communities. The project mainly supports them by providing education, child protection, psychosocial support and provision of child friendly spaces.

Due to the changing circumstances of the COVID19 crisis, the project recently underwent a modification to also attend to the increased gaps and programming needs related to the pandemic.

Nexus Approach in Ethiopia and Malawi

Noteworthy about our work in the past year, has been the implementation of the Nexus Approach in the region and specifically in Ethiopia and Malawi.

In Ethiopia, there are a few nexus initiatives being implemented at this very moment. Although they rather apply a double nexus approach, as opposed to the triple nexus, this is due to the fact that the local government does not allow NGOs to work on peace building and, thus, on the related pillar. Despite this, our team has deliberately decided to invest in development projects in humanitarian focus areas to ensure a seamless transition from humanitarian to development related objectives, allowing fora more flexible response to adapt to the changing circumstances in the country.

In Malawi and actual triple nexus approach is being carried out. In the Dzaleka refugee camp, the Plan International Malawi considers both the immediate and long-term needs of affected populations, and aims to enhance opportunities for peaceful coexistence between host communities and refugees and within the refugee community itself. The project has three main pillars: Humanitarian, Development and Peace and Social Cohesion. The Humanitarian Pillar focuses on the distribution of food and other primary needs and on actions against Sexual and Gender Based Violence. The Development pillar complements by focusing on child protection and participation, especially for girls, and on SRHR education. Finally, the Peace and Social Cohesion Pillar aims to strengthen the community’s structure and promotes social cohesion between locals and refugees.

Although we have been successful in applying a nexus approach in a number of projects, we continue to be aware of the many challenges the region continues to face. As a result, we will have to continue to strengthen both our knowledge and seek guidance to ensure lasting and sustainable progress.

Early childhood development, Education, Emergencies, Sexual and reproductive health and rights, COVID-19