By Amy Houghton
With UK schools set to cautiously resume face to face teaching across the next month, elsewhere in the world, such a return to normality (albeit one still tainted with tensions and uncertainties) is much further out of reach. 90% of the world’s countries have shut their schools and universities in response to the coronavirus pandemic, resulting in 753 million girls currently out of their normal mode of education. 111 million of these girls live in the world’s poorest nations. For low and lower-middle income countries, the disproportionate level of young girls in education was already an issue that demanded active attention and support. The raging spread of COVID-19 across the globe is predicted to exponentially exacerbate the issue.
In early April, Malala Fund and Plan International each released reports anticipating the destructive impacts that the social and economic consequences of the current pandemic will have on girls’ education. Using insights from the 2014-15 Ebola epidemic and the 2008 crash, each predict that the effects will extend well beyond the passing of the crisis and increased support will be vital.
Equal educational opportunities amongst girls and boys is widely known to be critical to public health, economic recovery and growth, as well as being crucial in the reduction of gender-based violence. The pandemic will have a hugely detrimental impact on economies across the world and girls from the poorest households will bear the largest burden. In the case of the Ebola epidemic, the increased poverty and parental mortality led to a heightened domestic responsibility put on young girls who, as Malala Yousafzai points out, “are the first to be removed from school and the last to return.”
Five years ago, the removal of girls from the protective infrastructure that schools provide also meant that they became more vulnerable to child marriages, trafficking, and sexual exploitation. In areas most disrupted by Ebola, the teenage pregnancy rate was found to have doubled. This meant that even after the passing of the crisis, the rate of return of girls to education remained drastically lower than pre-epidemic rates. Amnesty International found that in Sierra Leone, once schools had reopened, pregnant girls and young mothers were formally banned from sitting exams or entering back into mainstream education. Alongside the renewed responsibility put on young girls to help ensure their family’s economic survival, this meant that in the country’s most affected communities, girls became 16% less likely to be in school than they were prior to their temporary closing. On an optimistic note, this discriminatory ban was lifted in March 2020 and now the charity is working to ensure that COVID-19 does not see a repetition of such a violent removal of rights and dignity.
Despite losing access to physical forms of education, many girls in higher income nations have been able to adjust to virtual schooling with relative ease. This strategy of online learning has been adopted by a plethora of countries. Yet, even where broadband might be available, pervading gender norms and worries over the safety of young girls on the internet means that in the poorest countries, women are 33% less likely than men to use the internet. The Ebola crisis saw an alternative of radio lessons being introduced with a good amount of success but when pandemic induced poverty increases and hunger becomes more desperate, buying batteries for these radios becomes far less of a priority.
It should also not be forgotten that residence in higher-income countries does not make girls immune from these issues. Many girls in the UK similarly rely on school to shield them from violence and sexual harassment and benefit immensely from the sources of lifesaving information and psychosocial support that they provide. When asked by Plan International UK, 43% of girls said there are now fewer places they feel they can go to if they felt threatened by someone or by a situation. Many additionally relied on school as a provider of free meals and of free period products. Although the conversations surrounding school returns is nuanced, for a significant number of girls it is not just a matter of education, but one of safety. Whilst issues of girls’ education and safety abroad are incredibly important to address and overcome, it is important that such issues existing closer to home are not neglected in the process.
The coronavirus crisis is already exacerbating global poverty and the disproportionate lack of female education, both of which only serve to perpetuate the other. Equal access to education must remain a top priority for all world leaders and organisations. The economic benefits should not be the main motivator for this prioritisation but rather the guaranteed increase in protection and quality of life that accompanies it. That said, with the disastrous economic impacts of COVID-19 yet to be fully realised, emphasising the invaluable way in which a safe and educated female population can contribute to recovery is essential in pushing governments toward taking gender differentiation into account and instigating appropriate action.