Triona Pender from Castledermot delivering an online seminar to ActionAid Bangladesh from home during the lockdown. Picture: Kathleen Pender
The Covid-19 crisis means that teenage girls in developing countries are being hauled out of education and married off in order to ease the economic burden on their hard-hit families.
That is according to Triona Pender, the Castledermot woman who is head of programmes for ActionAid Ireland. She oversees the delivery of Irish Aid-funded programmes in Nepal, Kenya and Ethiopia which focus on the roles of women and children within their communities.
In recent years, one of the crucial elements of ActionAid’s work has been to encourage local communities to keep their young girls in education — but the Covid-19 pandemic means that a lot of that hard work is being undone.
“In Kenya and Ethiopia, for example, the school system has closed down. Poor families with girl children are looking at marrying them off — which could also mean getting them circumcised — to get rid of some of that burden on families.
“Lockdown there does not mean the same as lockdown here. People literally cannot afford to feed their families and they are trying to marry their girls off early so that they will be looked after by different families.”
The situation is similar in poor areas of rural Nepal, although circumcision, or female genital mutilation as it is now more accurately known, is not part of the culture there in order for girls to marry.
ActionAid’s programmes focus on working on behavioural change within communities, and on promoting the benefits to all sectors of society of educating women and children, a lack of which itself contributes to underdevelopment.
Now their work has switched to emergency relief including giving out food packages and hygiene kits; and delivering leaflets and enabling radio broadcasts to spread the message on what Covid-19 is, and how its transmission can be avoided.
“Put yourself in the situation where you have no soap or water, or you don’t know what Covid-19 is, or you are being told by the preacher that if you believe in Jesus you won’t get this,” said Triona, speaking of the challenge facing her team.
Vital health information and resources are being spread by ActionAid’s already established network of women leaders and local groups — and through them the message is also going out that it is vital to keep girls in education so that society will recover quicker after the pandemic.
Triona Pender pictured with ActionAid colleagues in Kishushe, Kenya, last December
Gender-based violence against women is also surging as families are stuck together at home and frustration builds. Unlike in Ireland, the health services and justice systems to which women would normally have recourse have broken down, putting them in even greater danger.
Triona notes how one focus of their work is the provision of ‘safe spaces’ for women who are victims of domestic violence. “There are many women and girls for whom home is not a safe place. Reports of domestic violence are surging and in some countries these have doubled. We are working to expand our existing safe spaces and refuges in addition to setting up short-term spaces for those more vulnerable during Covid–19.”
Triona, the daughter of Kathleen and the late Christy Pender, is a former student of Coláiste Lorcain in Castledermot and moved into the aid sector after studying for a masters in globalisation in DCU. She has previously worked with Trócaire and Norwegian Church Aid, and has lived and worked in Malawi and Bolivia.
During the pandemic, she is leading Action Aid’s vital work from her family home in Grangenolvin.
Action Aid receives government development funding — but its other main source of revenue is public donations.
“We have been blown away by the messages from our donors since Covid-19 began to take hold. People’s kindness and generosity has been incredible. We deeply appreciate it,” said Triona.
“We are so grateful to the people who sponsor children and make regular donations.”
To support ActionAid’s work or become a child sponsor or donor, visit actionaid.ie or telephone 01 878 7911