Lesotho’s lockdown was lifted at the beginning of May. The border between South Africa and Lesotho remains closed, yet, hundreds took the chance to cross illegally back into the country. One week later, Lesotho reported its first confirmed case of COVID-19.
Despite the endless news on the devastation coronavirus is causing throughout the world, there is not enough emphasis on the impact COVID-19 will have on girls and women, particularly in a developing country like Lesotho.
As is common around the world, girls and women in Lesotho carry the brunt of housework, including the role of caregiving for children, the ill and the elderly. Their role as caregivers puts them at an increased risk of developing infectious diseases like COVID-19. As a result of this pandemic, these girls and women toil endlessly under the burdens of caregiving under the loss of income, food insecurity and isolation from the support structures that typically enable them to cope with their challenges.
Lesotho remains under strict physical-distancing measures. With families continuing to spend long periods of time together in their very small homes, girls and women are at an increased risk of gender-based violence. In Lesotho, before the additional anxiety caused by COVID-19, 86% of girls reported having been abused. As we know well, financial and emotional stress so often manifests in violent outbursts towards girls and women who have little support in normal times, let alone when home-bound while social and protective systems are not operating at full capacity.
Lesotho’s hospitals and care facilities lack significant resources and staff, making them ill-equipped to handle a pandemic like COVID-19, with Lesotho’s quarantine facilities comprised of just 148 beds. Furthermore, women in developing countries often experience a lack of access to critical health information as a result of their their socioeconomic status . As noted in a report by the The World Health Organization:
“Social, cultural, financial and legal barriers and structural gender inequalities create critical challenges for meeting women’s health needs… In many settings women have limited autonomy and decision-making power, even over their health care needs – and limited time to seek services because of their caring responsibilities.”
With extremely high rates of pre-existing health conditions like HIV/AIDS (24%) and Tuberculosis (695 cases/100,000), COVID-19 would be extremely damaging to many Basotho people who already struggle with compromised immune systems. For women a pandemic poses a grave risk. They are inherently more susceptible to contracting HIV for reasons related indirectly and directly to their gender. According to the World Population Review, around half of the women in Lesotho under the age of 40 have HIV in urban areas, coupled with low socioeconomic status and lack of decision making power over their sexual and reproductive health.
Many Basotho women previously supported their families through small-business income such as selling vegetables on the street, child-minding or domestic service. With a loss of income due to COVID-19 prevention measures, these women may be forced to look for work elsewhere, potentially taking risks that will compromise their wellbeing and safety. The expected desperation felt by girls and women needing to feed their families may contribute to a rise in sex work, human trafficking, and other dangerous activities.
On April 22, 2020, Help Lesotho’s Executive Director, Peg Herbert, welcomed supporters into her home via a virtual coffee webinar! Peg shared information about the current COVID-19 situation in Lesotho, Help Lesotho’s immediate response to the pandemic, and looked back to the Alumni Reunion that occurred while she was in Lesotho earlier this year.
Note: we had to address a few technical issues in the first ~8 minutes of this recording. Please bear with us (or skip ahead if you prefer)
I hope you are all well and safe. I woke this morning to a cloudy, relatively warm and very safe day, in Ottawa. I want to send a note to you all on what has been going on – with me, Lesotho and the organization. Here is a COVID-19 update:
Firstly, thank you all for the messages of concern and support over the past week. To make a long, rather tortuous story short, I got food poisoning at a restaurant a week ago. Although not recovered, I decided Sunday to leave Lesotho while I could. Sylvia Pennell, a guest on our last donor trip, had remained to do some capacity building with our staff. Sylvia and I left Lesotho at 4:30am Monday morning to get across the border and drive to Johannesburg. It was so difficult to leave without saying goodbye to anyone but there it was. After the five-hour drive we spent the day in endless line ups trying to change tickets. Sylvia was able to get a flight out on KLM that night. I was not so lucky. I bought a ticket on Emeritus to Dubai, then to Heathrow. More endless line ups, and I eventually secured a ticket for two days later to Toronto and then to Ottawa. I stayed in a hotel in London near the airport, closeted in my room, from the crowd of international travelers. Heathrow is like a ghost town. 23 hours after leaving that hotel, I finally made it to Ottawa just before midnight last night, and now commence my 14-day self-isolation. I am well and grateful for the prayers and messages of encouragement. It has been a priority for me to get this update out to you as I know many are worried.
2. LESOTHO UPDATE
There are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Lesotho currently, however, with few/no valid testing results (tests have to be sent to south Africa for results), there is no way to know. The World Health Organization has just stated that “Africa should prepare for the worst” and labelled Lesotho one of the most vulnerable countries with at least half of the population having pre-existing conditions (such as HIV or Tuberculosis), an unstable coalition government, a preponderance of households with large families living under one roof, a returning migrant population quickly returning home from South Africa potentially infected, and a healthcare system completely ill-equipped to handle an outbreak. Schools are now closed for a month and large gatherings prohibited. Thankfully students will still receive their school lunch – for many students, this is their primary source of food.
This virus will be particularly devastating for girls and women, not because they are innately more susceptible to it, but their roles as caregivers gives them greater exposure to the virus and their limited decision-making power in most relationships will inhibit their ability to make healthy choices. These girls and women need our support more than ever as they negotiate this stressful situation.
3. HELP LESOTHO UPDATE
Our work over the last 16 years has rebuilt hundreds of rural community support networks for our youth, grandmothers, young mothers and herd boys to replace those fractured or completely destroyed by death, fear and discrimination from the HIV/AIDS pandemic since in the 1990’s. We are, even today, developing alternative plans to continue to bolster these community networks so they are strengthened rather than diminished by this new virus threat.
Tuesday, Help Lesotho staff all met to disseminate factual information about the virus, clarify protective measures of social distancing, hand-washing, and strategies to keep their immune systems strong;
Our two community centres were temporarily closed this morning to limit exposure from congregating, especially to the stream of little ones who practically live there;
Our intensive programs will continue for the next week or so as we assess the situation – these programs are so crucial to the participants and will be held in small enough groups to minimize exposure;
Staff are united and committed to exploring innovative ways to keep in touch with their participants;
Our Country Director, Shadrack, will evacuate to Kenya to be with his family while he can still get through the borders. He will work from there. Supervisors will work supporting their staff, tracking issues and beneficiary contacts, identifying patterns, etc.;
Lesotho staff will continue their weekly meetings on Tuesdays via Skype to remain focused, motivated and in close contact. They will have access to real-time information to disseminate to beneficiaries;
We will continue to adapt and support from Canada. The Canadian office is working remotely, and using the opportunity to tackle many of the projects we rarely have time to complete.
INTERIM BENEFICIARY SUPPORT STRATEGY Help Lesotho staff have developed an outstanding expertise in psychosocial support. They know their beneficiaries intimately and have built trusting, therapeutic relationships. Without home facilities or internet to work from home, they will adapt with new methods of communication to work remotely. Using our extensive beneficiary databases, program staff will soon utilize popular special media platforms, such as WhatsApp, SMS and phone calls to provide psychosocial support to alumni and current participants in their programs. They will prioritize the most vulnerable to ensure that our beneficiaries have someone they trust to talk to about their feelings and fears. Our staff will communicate current news, common-sense health information, and squarely address concerns of people who may lose the little means of support they have. This contact will provide a life line to those who need it most.
4. MY REMAINING ‘LETTERS FROM LESOTHO’
I have two remaining ‘Letters from Lesotho’ covering my time until my sudden departure drafted and will send them out in due time. They will be out of sequence given this new crisis but may provide encouragement to us all. Stay tuned for Letter #4 and Letter #5 in the coming weeks. These are unprecedented times and we have so much to be grateful for.
Again, I send my personal thanks for your caring concern. Help Lesotho is strong and focused. It is our intent to address this current situation with innovative approaches and effective support to all in our Help Lesotho family.
In 2019, 80 girls attended the first ever ‘Pearl Girl Camp’ at Help Lesotho’s Seotlong Centre in Hlotse. The grade 8 and grade 9 students were all from local schools and were former participants of the Pearl Program. The girls all come from vulnerable families; nearly half of girls are orphans. Help Lesotho thanks the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives (CFLI) Pretoria for granting the funds for this camp.
The goal of the three-day Pearl Girl Camp was to inspire the girls to ‘Dream Big’, especially in consideration of pursuing careers related to S.T.E.M. (science, technology, engineering and math). For many of the participants, it was the first time they realized that girls can dream big!
Here are a few of the girls’ ‘Big Dreams’ they shared after taking the training:
The girls participated in workshops where they heard from young females currently employed in S.T.E.M. industries. It was important for the campers to see girls who grew up in similar circumstances as themselves now holding important jobs in fields typically dominated by men. One of the guest speakers, Ms. Lieta, shared, “I was the only girl doing civil engineering and I failed the last year of my diploma and I was a laughing stock of all the boys in my faculty but that didn’t discourage me from trying again because I believed I am capable like those boys…”
In addition to learning about S.T.E.M., the campers participated in life skills sessions about self-esteem, being assertive, making healthy choices, leaders and followers and personal responsibility. At the end of Pearl Camp, each participant was asked to complete a survey about the information they learned during the three days of training. 96% of the girls responded that the information they learned at camp would be very helpful to their future! Survey results also showed significantly improved self-esteem and confidence among the girls, as well as an increase in their ability to make healthy decisions for themselves.
Hello, my name is Rethabile. I am a Mosotho girl aged 28 years. I never had a father and I lost my mother to cancer when I was 13 years old. I was fortunate enough to be raised by my lovely grandparents who sacrificed a lot just so I can finish my studies.
When I was in high school I started taking alcohol to make myself feel better, then life after writing my exams humbled me. I applied to several schools but I was only admitted to one school. As I did not get a scholarship, I had to stay at home the whole year. I used my talent to braid people’s hair to save money to apply for schools again the following year.
I was admitted at Lesotho College of Education toward a Diploma in Education Secondary, majoring in English and Geography. At this point I realized that I had to work hard at school and pass because should fail I was going to lose my sponsorship and nobody was going to pay for me. All I ever wanted was to change my grandparents’ life for the better. Yet, after graduation came unemployment and I started to lose hope again. I had suicidal thoughts because of staying at home with nothing to do, when a friend introduced me to Help Lesotho programs of which I will forever be grateful because it changed my life for the better.
When I first started my lessons at Help Lesotho (Computer and Life Skills 2018) I thought of it as passing the time. I did not have an idea that the way I looked at life was going to change in a positive way. Although the sessions we had on Life Skills were short, they were helpful in a way because they left me so curious that I applied for Leaders-in-Training Program in February 2019. The lesson on self-esteem made me realize that I do not have control over what other people think of me. I realized that if I loved myself enough what other people think of me wouldn’t matter. I reflected on how I almost ruined my future by neglecting school because of what I couldn’t change and had no control over.
Everyday spent at Help Lesotho healed me, I stopped being angry at life in general, people who hurt me, my dad who was never part of my life, and my mother’s death. I got to realize the things I did to other people that hurt them unaware that I was hurting them.
The ability to heal, to recover or bounce back from a difficult situation is the best remedy in the world. It helped me become the best decision maker. I am able to help people and learn from them. I dealt with my fears.
In the past I used to confuse being abused with being loved. I have been in a very toxic relationship unaware that I was being abused. The only time I noticed was went the pain was inflicted physically. I was in a relationship whereby it was a crime to make a mistake. I had no problem with that until I attended Help Lesotho’s sessions and was taught about healthy and unhealthy relationships. Now I am able to speak my mind, am able to see when I am being abused physically, emotionally, and mentally.
My life has changed for the better and I am a new person that my community is proud to have around because through me they know that Help Lesotho exists, my neighbors are part of the programs and their lives are improving.
Overview: In 2018-2019, UNICEF funded a Help Lesotho project to reach 150 young mothers in rural Lesotho (Butha Buthe and Thaba Tseka). This is the first year of a three year funding commitment.
Problem: A major obstacle in Lesotho is the low demand among adolescents to access Sexual and Reproductive Health(SRH)/HIV services—especially amongst pregnant girls and young women.
Objective: UNICEF and Help Lesotho are supporting the Ministry of Health to increase the knowledge and change the attitudes of 150 adolescent mothers (age 15-24) in Butha Buthe and Thaba-Tseka districts. The intervention will contribute to generate demand of SRH/HIV services and increase access to health and social services.
M&E Framework and Indicators: A monthly Well-being Checklist covered the following areas:
Health: Access to health care services, testing for HIV, Knowledge about HIV/AIDS, child immunization, exclusive breastfeeding, pre-natal and post natal care, contraceptives and condom use, and knowledge about SRH;
Psychological Support: Depression and anxiety, stress, grief and loss, anger and conflict management, communication skills, healthy relationships with family members and partners, quality time with children and support network;
Education: Right and opportunities to education, early childhood education, child stimulation;
Food and Nutrition: Nutritional needs for reproductive women, and infant and young child feeding;
Protection: Rights to protection against abuse and violence, birth certificates, IDs, baby birth certificates; and
Economic Strengthening: Skills on income generating activities (IGAs), and generating own income.
Year One Key Achievements:
150 young mothers trained on life skills, sexual and reproductive health, gender-based violence, and HIV education;
15 peer support networks established in rural communities;
+ 40% in partner testing;
+ 60% in YMs consistently accessing condoms;
+ 49% in YMs received antenatal care within the last 30 days;
+ 35% in YMs coping ‘’a lot’’ with depression and anxiety;
+ 39% in YMs feeding children with enough protein, vegetables and fruits 1-2X/day; and
+ 46% in YMs generating income (more than R100 per week).
“I visited my boyfriend who stays in Sehong Hong three years ago. When It was time for me to return home he refused and told me that I am married to him. I wanted to continue schooling but my boyfriend refused stating that I had to concentrate on household chores, shortly I got pregnant and the man who used to be caring began to physically abuse me, accusing me for having extra marital affairs with other village men. I reported the ill-treatment to my mother who advised me to go back home. Life was very difficult for me, I could hardly meet the daily needs for myself and my daughter who is now two years old. The training, support and starter pack I received from Help Lesotho and my peers helped me a lot, for the past three months I made approximately M400 profit and was able to re-stock. I am very glad because I managed to register to go back to school next year. I used the money I generated from the starter pack to pay registration fees and I can be in a position to buy food and to take myself and my child to hospital when we are sick.”