Senior Chief Chikumbu of Mulanje sounds overwhelmed.
Recently, she asked youth networks in her rural locality to conduct a simple survey on the impact of school closure due to Covid-19 and they counted 20 pregnancies in few villages.
Chikumbu knows the count would have been higher had they covered all villages.
“Covid-19 is seriously devastating every aspect of life in my area,” she says.
In March, government closed schools to disrupt the Covid-19 outbreak.
But as the global pandemic spreads with no end in sight, communities are enduring its negative socio-economic impact.
Chikumbu, a vibrant sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) activist, has established committees comprising the youth, women and men, village heads and religious leaders to tackle maternal and infant mortalities, child marriages and teen pregnancies.
She says they made good progress until Covid-19 arrived in April.
She states: “Everything is in disarray now. Twenty pregnancies in just this short time and in just a few villages?
“That’s worrying. We had early pregnancies before, but they have accelerated due to Covid-19. The pandemic is reversing the hard-earned gains.”
This is just a glimpse of the Covid-19 crisis.
Reports from district social welfare offices suggest a graver sexual and reproductive health crisis. Mangochi alone has recorded 7 274 teen pregnancies since schools closed. Blantyre registered 77 while Nsanje has reported 104.
The Covid-19 emergency is worsening the silent crisis in the country where half of girls marry before their 18th birthday and almost a third of adolescents carry pregnancies.
During a workshop organised by Centre for Solutions Journalism in Mulanje recently, SRHR committees from Chikumbu said the ban on schooling and public gatherings has closed space for activities that keep the youth busy.
They said the restrictions on public gatherings have given the youth groups excuses not to meet and discuss how they can steer clear of sexual activities fuelling teen pregnancies, child marriages, unsafe abortions and sexually transmitted infections. And there is no sports going on.
“Sports is dead in our villages; the only sport children know is sex,” says village head Chigwembere. “Every time I go out of my home, I bring to my wife depressing reports of how the youth run the risk of losing the battle to end teenage pregnancies and child marriages.
Father Martin Kalimbe, one of rising clerical voices on SRHR issues, says parents and guardians are not totally to blame.
Says the Anglican priest: “From experience, raising a child is not the role of parents alone—but the whole society.
“Schools, churches, hospitals, counselling offices, the economy—all these play a role. Now there are restrictions in place. The usual support and awareness structures are on lockdown. The economic impact of Covid-19 is taking its toll on families. It is whole pile of issues.”
The committees keep losing members because they do not get paid for it.
The dropouts prefer taking up tasks that generate money for the good of their families.
The remaining volunteers often use their own resources to do communal work. Some walk long distances because they do not have bicycles. Others work at the cost of personal convenience. Sometimes, they suffer resistance and ridicule from onlookers when enforcing community by-laws that outlaw sexual ties with girls under 18
“Things are more complicated for us now,” says Chigwembere, almost resignedly.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), Covid-19 has forced governments to focus health service delivery on the pandemic, leaving sexual and reproductive health in the margin. This month, WHO said two thirds of the 103 countries, which it surveyed to determine their health priority responses amid Covid-19, reported disruptions to family planning and contraception services.
The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates that the world faced up to seven million unintended pregnancies as some countries have not considered sexual and reproductive health as an essential service during the Covid-19 crisis.
People from Chikumbu’s area say people with other ailments are being turned away from some health facilities as staff say they are overwhelmed by Covid-19 response.
And as both Covid-19 and preventive measures persist, Chikumbu’s worries are mounting.
“When schools reopen, girls will be returning to classes not with notebooks but babies,” she says.
The traditional leader has dealt with young people who clandestinely terminated pregnancy.
Some procure abortion to avoid being scorned by their peers; reprisals from their guardians and religious leaders; a desire to remain in school and weighed down by the burden of raising babies without any means.
Others are disgusted by the idea of keeping a product of defilement, rape or incest.
Between that stack of reasons to terminate unintended pregnancy and colonial laws that criminalises abortion except when a woman is in danger of dying, girls seek backstreet abortions, which contribute up to 18 percent of maternal deaths in the country.
Chikumbu’s community has to work harder to save lives.
She says: “We need support. As a community, we are doing our part, but it is not enough. We need government and more players to come and deliver more and right messages right in the villages.”