Nearly 743 million girls around the world have been pushed out of school due to school closures resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. According to UNESCO, out of the total population of students enrolled in education globally, over 89% are currently out of school because of COVID-19 school closures.
These numbers feel unfathomable. Will all these children return to a classroom once this health crisis is over? No. And it will mostly be adolescent girls whose education will be disrupted forever because of the current school closures.
Over 111 million girls are currently living in the world’s least developed countries where getting an education is already a struggle. These are contexts of extreme poverty, economic vulnerability and crisis where gender disparities in education are highest. COVID-19 and school closures, exacerbate these barriers to education for all children, especially girls.
Why is it difficult to get girls in to school and keep them there?
When trying to access education, girls around the world continue to face a myriad of barriers that are rooted in gender inequality and pervasive understandings of gender roles.
Many gains have been made to achieve gender parity in the primary years of schooling for children around the world. But as little girls’ transition into adolescence, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep them in a classroom. From child, early and forced marriage to menstruation, violence in schools to early pregnancy, the odds are stacked against adolescent girls, especially ones living in abject poverty or in the context of crises.
Girls are 2.5 times more likely to be out of school than boys during crises.
In Mali, Niger and South Sudan — 3 countries with some of the lowest enrolment and completion rates for girls — closures have forced over 4 million girls out of school.
Education responses to COVID-19 must prioritize the needs of adolescent girls’ otherwise there’s risk of reversing the gains that have been made for girls’ education over the last 20 years.
School closures during the Ebola Crisis left girls most vulnerable
At the height of the Ebola epidemic, 5 million children were affected by school closures across Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, countries hardest hit by the outbreak. And poverty levels rose significantly as education was interrupted.
In many cases, school dropouts were caused by an increase in domestic and caring responsibilities and a shift towards income generation. This means that girls’ learning at home was limited, as shown by Plan International’s analysis.
Several studies found that school closures increased girl’s vulnerability to physical and sexual abuse both by their peers and by older men, as girls were often at home alone and unsupervised. Sexual exploitation in the context of selling sex for food and other essentials was also widely reported as vulnerable girls and their families struggled to cover basic needs. As family breadwinners perished from Ebola and livelihoods were destroyed, many families chose to marry their daughters off, falsely hoping this would offer them protection.
In Sierra Leone, adolescent pregnancy increased by up to 65% in some communities during the Ebola crisis. In one study, most girls reported this increase was a direct result of being outside the protective environment provided by schools.
Many of these girls never returned to the classroom, largely due to a recently revoked policy preventing pregnant girls from attending school.
In the COVID-19 reality, how can we prioritize girls’ education?
As governments prepare for indefinite school closures, policy makers and practitioners can look to lessons from past crises to address the specific challenges faced by girls.
Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen, CEO Plan International and Stefania Giannini, ADD UNESCO are calling on governments to protect progress made in favour of girls’ education through these six gender-responsive, evidence-based and context-specific actions:
- Leverage teachers and communities
Work closely with teachers, school staff and communities to ensure inclusive methods of distance learning are adopted and communicated to call for continued investments in girls’ learning. Community sensitization on the importance of girls’ education should continue as part of any distance learning program.
- Adopt appropriate distance learning practices
In contexts where digital solutions are less accessible, consider low-tech and gender-responsive approaches. Send reading and writing materials home and use radio and television broadcasts to reach the most marginalized. Ensure program scheduling and learning structures are flexible and allow self-paced learning so as not to deter girls who often disproportionately shoulder the burden of care.
- Consider the gender digital divide
In contexts where digital solutions to distance learning and internet is accessible, ensure that girls are trained with the necessary digital skills, including the knowledge and skills they need to stay safeonline.
- Safeguard vital services
Girls and the most vulnerable children and youth miss out on vital services when schools are closed, specifically school meals and social protection. Make schools access points for psychosocial support and food distribution, work across sectors to ensure alternative social services and deliver support over the phone, text or other forms of media.
- Engage young people
Give space to youth, particularly girls, to shape the decisions made about their education. Include them in the development of strategies and policies around school closures and distance learning based on their experiences and needs.
- Ensure return to school
Provide flexible learning approaches so that girls are not deterred from returning to school when they re-open. This includes pregnant girls and young mothers who often face stigma and discriminatory school re-entry laws that prevent them from accessing education.
Allow automatic promotion and appropriate opportunities in admissions processes that recognize the particular challenges faced by girls. Catch-up courses and accelerated learning may be necessary for girls who return to school.
During school closures and beyond, we will prioritize the needs of girls
Schools serve as a safe haven and education is a doorway to a brighter future for girls. A future that they decide; one in line with their own dreams.
School closures mean girls have potentially lost access to allies, vital information to keep them safe and healthy, and safety from gender-based violence. At this time, it is critical that we listen to girls and respond in a way that takes into account their lived realities. A gender lens on any measures that help stop the spread of COVID-19 will help us keep some of the gains we have made in girls’ education.
Plan International is committed to centering gender equality in all of our projects. Now more than ever, we are focusing our efforts on ensuring that adolescent girls are heard and considered.
Questions related to this story:
- How do periods impact girls’ education?
- Are girls safe walking to school?
- What is gender-based violence?
- How to talk to children about COVID-19
- Why women are most impacted by COVID-19