While governments grapple with COVID-19, children and young people in Mathare, Nairobi explain how the pandemic is making marginalised children even more vulnerable. As the world comes to terms with the distressing news of the COVID-19 pandemic, its ripple effects shine a light on wider systemic deficiency. It is in crises like these that the causes and consequences of extreme exclusion and marginalisation become even more evident. Young community leaders, who have direct experience of being marginalised themselves and now advocate for the rights of their peers, are acutely aware that existing systems have failed to protect the most vulnerable in times of relative stability and are now at forefront of the response to COVID-19.
One of these young community leaders is Billian Ojiwa, the team leader and Executive Director, Billian Music Family Leadership and Resource Centre (image left and top). BMF is a youth-led organisation that works with the 100 Million campaign to advocate for the rights of the most marginalised children in Mathare – a sprawling informal ‘slum’ settlement in Nairobi, Kenya. Educating the public is critical, but it is the one thing that has not been done sufficiently in marginalised communities. Children, too, are scared and want to understand what is happening, and in environments such as Mathare, not every child has an adult that is able to explain the current events. “My mother says I shouldn’t eat any food from our neighbour yet there’s no food at home. She also said I shouldn’t play with my friends as I will get coronavirus,” says twelve-year-old Junior from Mathare. With office, school and even nationwide shutdowns as the new normal, we are also facing multiple crises. Good nutrition is crucial in maintaining and boosting the immune system, which should be able to fight back in case one contracts COVID-19. Many children in Mathare rely on the meals served in schools, with family poverty and access to food difficult even in pre-COVID-19 times. A hungry stomach is just as painful as this pandemic, and hunger and lack of access to good nutrition poses more danger to these children, as it can make them more vulnerable to other illnesses, which in turn increases the potential of COVID-19 to have a more dangerous impact on them if contracted. Schools and community centres, such as Billian’s, are also critical to keeping children safe from other dangers, such as gang violence and child labour.
“There is a lot of fear and things are in slow mode. We are not able to provide the children with the library activities after school. This is not good for the children as they are exposed to so many dangers in the alley,” says Ruben, the Head of Partnerships at Billian Music Family Leadership and Resource Centre (image left: volunteers from BMF distribute water in Mathare during the COVID-19 crisis in March 2020).The current COVID-19 health policy emphasises the importance of proper handwashing, social distancing, separation and isolation. This advice draws attention to the widening inequality gap for the most marginalised children living in slum settlements like Mathare, whose access to water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) is severely lacking. The lack of running clean water, grossly inadequate sewerage infrastructure, or raw waste flowing from broken sewage pipes pose great dangers as they expose children and their families to contracting COVID-19, as well as many other diseases.
In the alleys of Mathare, the high-density housing and poor housing conditions, overcrowding, and congestion, force the community to share basic amenities. The stay-at-home directive is not feasible for marginalised communities, who often rely on each other for survival. Failure to acknowledge this reality is especially dangerous considering the absence of safety gear such as sanitisers and face masks for those who can’t just ‘stay at home’. “My mother has restricted me from going far from our doorstep,” says Kevin, a ten-year-old from Mathare. The shutdown directive is also leading to panic-buying by wealthier citizens, making the situation more severe for marginalised communities. Caregivers in Mathare, mainly self-employed and daily wage employees, are not able to stock up ahead of hard times. For people who are already barely surviving, ‘stocking up’ can’t be added to the equation. Caregivers are forgoing safety measures because extreme hunger poses a more immediate threat for their dependents than contracting COVID-19, which in turn poses a great danger to the children as they go in and out of different households to get meals.
To further minimise likelihood of transmission through handling of physical cash, the government and other stakeholders are rooting for cashless/mobile phone transactions. Yet again, this overlooks the reality of existing marginalised areas. Service and goods providers and consumers in Mathare for example cannot make this shift, due to fundamental limitations such as access to electricity and poor network transmission. The slum is not part of the national electricity grid thus use of mobile phones for transactions is not realistic.
All these lofty directives given to curb the pandemic are still a mirage for these communities. Marginalised children and their families are at the intersection of many axes of disadvantage – a powerful symbol of inequality in the world.
However, communities such as Mathare continue to find strength and hope from the young community leaders who continue to stand up for their rights and those of their marginalised peers in this time of crisis, who are a constant proof that impact treads on the heels of those on the frontlines using their initiative and taking the lead. Just this week, Billian and other youth and community leaders provided clean drinking water to the residents of Mathare, providing critical support during a time of crisis (image left). These young community leaders in less safe spaces, such as Mathare, which had been left behind long before the pandemic hit and are therefore less resilient to its effects, are boldly urging the government to ensure access to adequate information, preparation, and support with which to manage COVID-19 in a healthy, safe, and dignified manner. They are reiterating the need for this pandemic to be monitored to detect the spread in the community at an early stage and, if required, to facilitate the development of adequate preventive and therapeutic measures.
100 Million reiterates the urgency of delivering commitments to the most marginalised children. This can’t wait: it is time for governments to step it up and deliver safety and protection for children living in marginalised communities. We at 100 Million stand in solidarity with the young community leaders in Mathare who are working to increase compassion and understanding towards their most marginalised counterparts in their community during COVID-19 and beyond.