Theresa Njeri, a mother of three, is pregnant with her fourth child. Though she feels tired and weak because of the pregnancy, she is busy sorting out waste at a collection point in Naivasha, located in the north west of Nairobi.
The strong stench, with flies hovering around, is what Njeri has to endure on a daily basis.
“Every time I am here I keep vomiting because of the smell; but I have no option but to continue working, my pregnancy notwithstanding, so that my children can get food” she says.
Studies indicate that exposure to outdoor pollution before or during pregnancy can cause the baby to have low birth weight and also increase the baby’s risk to contracting illnesses. Babies born with low birth weight tend to be malnourished too.
Njeri blames Covid-19 for losing her job. “I was employed at a company here in Naivasha on a casual basis, but when covid-19 hit the country last year, I was laid off. I’m a single mother with little children who entirely depend on me,” says Njeri explains.
She was then forced to seek employment as a casual worker at the waste collection centre manned by a group called Waste to Best Environmental Action Group, where she has worked for eight months. She earns a daily fee of Ksh150.
Njeri lives in a slum where she pays Ksh1,500 for a small temporary room she has rented.
She says her life is full of challenges, and has to eat from hand to mouth together with her children.
“I never knew my life would end up this way – working at a waste collection site. I used to view this job as dirty work. But now when Covid-19 rendered me jobless, this is the only opportunity available,” she says.
When waste is collected from households, Njeri sorts it out, separating organic waste from other types of waste such as metal.
“I have to touch very dirty matter; at times I fear they are toxic. I do not have an overall or gloves for protective purposes. Sometimes I am pricked by needles, glasses, and pins,” she says, adding; “Many people do not separate waste at the household level, they mix everything together, making it dangerous for those sorting the waste.”
The situation is the same for Hannah Wambui, who works with Njeri. She is a teenage mother of a two-year-old, who she brings along to the waste sorting site.
“I come with my baby here every day; I cannot afford a house-help. This place is dirty and is not a conducive environment for a baby, but I have no choice. I work here from Monday to Saturday, earning Ksh150 daily,” she points out.
Initially, Wambui used to do manual jobs, including washing people’s clothes in her neighbourhood, but when Covid-19 set in, clients were hesitant to engage her.
“You see, I cannot blame these people. With Covid-19, you cannot just welcome people in your house, and also, many of them are now jobless,” she says.
What has befallen many
The predicament that Njeri and Wambui have found themselves in is reflective of what has befallen many following the onset of the pandemic.
Analysts opine that Covid-19 and subsequently its containment measures in Kenya and elsewhere, have resulted in unprecedented effects on people’s well-being, with a disproportionate burden falling on women and girls
According to a recent study on gender effects of Covid-19, conducted by the Ministry of Health and the Population Council, women were earning less than their male partners prior to COVID-19, but this gap has widened due to the pandemic. Half of the women, compared to a third of men, reported earning nothing due to the pandemic.
The research further points out that due to Covid-19, although both men and women were now earning less, loss of income has been more severe on women, with half (48%) of them saying they were earning nothing now compared to 33% of men.