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Doris is a 75-year-old woman from Kayaba informal settlement in Nairobi. As with most families in the settlement, her house is a single dilapidated room with mud walls, a corrugated iron roof, and dirt floors. There is no clean running water, and she shares a public latrine with her neighbors. Doris, not her real name, lives with her late daughter's six children, two of whom have mental health conditions.

When Covid-19 lockdown control measures set in, she was no longer able to sell detergent, which had provided her with a meager living. "I was not able to continue buying medication – at Kshs.100 (US$1) per tablet – for my grandchildren," she told us. "I tried borrowing money from friends, but they were also not doing well." Doris and her grandchildren often went hungry: "Food was difficult to get. I was borrowing food, begging, and buying food items on credit, which I am yet to pay."

The effect of the lockdown has lingered even after the government relaxed lockdown measures and Doris struggles to revive her business.

Her story is painfully familiar.

Human Rights Watch recently spoke with over a hundred people, mainly women, living in Nairobi's informal settlements about the impact of Covid-19 on their lives. We found that the crisis has devastated many people's livelihoods since March 2020, when the authorities responded with stringent measures to control the spread of the virus, including curfews, stay-at-home orders, school closures and other restrictions on movement.

Although the Kenyan government aimed to cushion the impact on the most vulnerable families whose livelihoods were destroyed by the economic contraction brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, the authorities failed to design a social security program that would guarantee that those who most needed assistance would receive it. As a result, many families, especially those living in informal settlements, have faced extreme hunger and have accumulated several months of rent arrears, putting them at risk of eviction. This has caused disharmony in families.

Human Rights Watch found that only a small fraction of families living in informal settlements benefited from the pandemic cash transfer program, which was limited to begin with. What was otherwise a noble intervention was heavily undermined by negligence and inadequate oversight by the authorities. The program was characterized by lack of transparency, cronyism, nepotism, and outright favoritism. Government officials failed to follow the stated selection criteria or to share information that should have enabled more vulnerable families to enroll.

A glaring gap in Kenya's response to the economic impact of the pandemic, as well as generally in its social protection schemes, is the lack of a strong gender-sensitive approach.

Poverty in Kenya has a female face. Women tend to be poorer than men and to have less access to the capital and assets necessary for adequate livelihoods. Men participate more in the labor force and have more opportunities for formal employment, which has stronger job security protections, and they earn more than women. Data shows that in Kenya, women are more likely to be unemployed, underemployed, underpaid, seasonal workers, have less access to social protection, and to make up the majority of single-parent households.

The pandemic has not only affected the health and food security of millions of Kenyans, but it has also aggravated these pre-existing gender inequalities with a disproportionate impact on women and girls in multiple ways.

Most women in Kenya work part-time in the informal sector, including as domestic workers, food vendors, and market sellers. They are in situations in which they cannot work remotely, causing them to lose income during the pandemic restrictions, and their jobs in the service industry are often more precarious in terms of job security and safety nets when crises such as Covid-19 hit the economy. Some studies have shown that more women than men reported experiencing hunger, domestic violence, and difficulties accessing health care during the pandemic.

Worldwide, including in Kenya, women often take on a disproportionate share of caregiving for children unable to attend school and for sick family members, limiting how much time they can spend in income-generating activities. The repercussions of measures to address the pandemic, including increased financial and food insecurity, lack of mobility, isolation, or living in congested conditions – especially for women and girls in informal settlements – and social stress have also heightened the vulnerability of women and girls to gender-based violence.

It is not clear the extent to which Covid-19 cash transfer and other social protection initiatives have benefited women as data on the coverage by social protection initiatives is not publicly available separated by gender. However, when directed to the most vulnerable people and carried out transparently and accountably, cash transfers have the potential to cushion women against gender-related abuses and to contribute to gender equality.

Kenyan authorities should immediately address the gaps in the current Covid-19 cash transfer programs, including by extensively reviewing and strengthening the criteria for selecting vulnerable households and the systems for oversight.

The authorities should also take steps to mitigate any additional impact on women and girls of the Covid-19 crisis. The authorities should ensure that Covid-19 and other emergency or crises response contingency measures include a strong focus on protecting women and girls against sexual and gender-based violence, and that women and people with expertise on gender-appropriate planning are included in the development of social protection measures.

The continuing health crisis, food insecurity, joblessness, the high cost of living, and the lessons from Covid-19 social protection interventions make it clear that Kenyan authorities urgently need to build a long-term inclusive, gender-responsive, and sustainable social protection program. At present, there is neither legislation in place nor an institutional framework to standardize shock-responsive social protection in Kenya.

Every Kenyan has a right to an adequate standard of living. The Kenyan government has a duty to ensure that people like Doris have access to adequate food and freedom from hunger.

Agnes Odhiambo is a senior women's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.

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