World Refugee Day: How is COVID-19 impacting refugee girls and women?

Reading Time: 4 minutes
Reading Time: 4 minutes

On World Refugee Day, we recognize that every minute 20 people leave everything behind to escape war, persecution or terror. Refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) are some the world’s most vulnerable people – a reality that is further being exacerbated as COVID-19 continues to spread across the globe.

Today, an unprecedented 76 million people are living as refugees or have been displaced inside their own countries. More than 80% of the world’s refugees are hosted in low- and middle-income countries where health systems are not equipped to manage significant disease outbreaks.

overcrowded refugee camp with groups of people and closely packed tents
Where social distancing isn’t possible: Nyarugusu refugee camp is home to 100,000 people 

Refugee and IDP camps are chronically overcrowded and measures to avoid community spread of the virus, such as social distancing and frequent handwashing, are difficult to implement. In addition, access to basic amenities, such as clean running water, soap, face masks and vital health information will make avoiding infection a serious challenge.

The concern about an outbreak of COVID-19 in refugee and IDP camps cannot be overstated. The pandemic has consequences for everyone, but some groups are particularly more at risk. Based on our research, the impact of COVID-19 on girls and women – on their health, safety and opportunities for education and decent jobs – is making an already difficult situation much worse.

The impact of COVID-19 on refugee girls and women

The COVID-19 pandemic is impacting women and girls’ lives in 3 major ways:

1. Limited access to education

Girls living in refugee camps or who are internally displaced, are already at a disadvantage in accessing education, especially at a secondary level where girls are only half as likely to enroll in high school in comparison to their male peers. 

With the closure of schools due to COVID-19, a girl’s access to both official and alternative forms of learning is further restricted. They have little or no opportunity to learn remotely due to limited internet connectivity and access to online resources.

Girl doing school work wearing face mask

The closure of schools in refugee camps is also depriving girls of a safe, protective environment, feeding programs and psychosocial support. Our research further shows that the longer-term effects of lockdowns on girls’ education include increased rates of early, forced and child marriage.

In addition, when schools eventually reopen, some children and young people, including married and pregnant girls and young women, will find it difficult to return to the classroom.

2. Economic instability

Some refugee camps have significant restrictions on movement which have resulted in a reduction of livelihood opportunities as many girls and women rely on trading and working as maids in nearby cities to help feed their families. COVID-19 combined with economic insecurity makes this impossible.

Also, as families face economic strains from COVID-19, child marriage and child labour can increase too.

Mother and daughter stand in front of makeshift home

3. Violence

The incidence of intimate partner violence (IPV) and other forms of gender-based violence within homes is increasing, as movement restrictions and food and economic insecurity, increase tensions and bear down on pre-existing gender inequalities.

In Egypt, 25% of both national and Syrian refugees’ households, girls and young women are suffering gender-based violence and abuse. Higher rates of domestic violence and child marriage are also being reported in the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh.

The fact that many essential social protection services and referral mechanisms are either severely reduced or completely stopped makes it even harder for young women and girls to get the help they need.

Ensuring girls’ voices are heard in crisis

Despite facing many challenges and layers of discrimination, women and adolescent girls in crisis are not just passive victims. They have incredible potential to contribute to decision making, taking up leadership roles and responsibilities in responding to COVID-19.

In refugee and IDP camps, girls and young women are using their skills and resilience to deal with the COVID-19 crisis and address other issues – the lack of money, food and safety, which continually affect their lives.

Meet Rose, a Congolese refugee living in Malawi’s Dzaleka Camp, and see how she is coping while also encouraging other girls to speak up about violence and other issues they may be facing due to COVID-19.


Support our work on world refugee day

Plan International is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic in 50 countries. Through our work, we support some of the largest displaced populations around the world in countries such as the Central African Republic, Nigeria, Uganda, Ethiopia, Bangladesh and Venezuela. When it comes to addressing the urgent needs of refugee and IDP populations, our priorities are:

  • Protecting children’s health
  • Improving access to water and sanitation
  • Supporting education
  • Ensuring all children are protected
  • Preventing gender-based violence
  • Community engagement and raising awareness
Plan International Staff deliver hygiene supply to woman in makeshift home
Plan International is working to distribute essentials like soap to those who need it most

You can also make a difference by donating to help us reach vulnerable children – especially marginalized girls – and their families with the lifesaving information, tools and resources they need to protect themselves from COVID-19.

Donate now and your donation will be matched 4X for extra impact.

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