Calling on Africa to ensure girls go back to school post COVID-19 closures

With schools reopening across Africa after the COVID-19 related closures, the African Union International Centre for Girls’ and Women’s Education in Africa (AU/CIEFFA) launched #AfricaEducatesHer, a campaign to bring awareness to the issues hindering girls and women from accessing education during the COVID-19 pandemic and a rallying call to take positive action now to guarantee girls returning to school as they gradually reopen.

October 16, 2020 by Rita Bissoonauth, African Union International Center for Girls and Women’s Education in Africa
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5 minutes read
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Students from Langata West Primary School in Nairobi, Kenya. February 2015.
Students from Langata West Primary School in Nairobi, Kenya. February 2015.
Credit: GPE/Mediabase

As schools begin to reopen across Africa after the COVID-19 related school closures, the African Union International Centre for Girls’ and Women’s Education in Africa (AU/CIEFFA) is turning its focus to ensuring African girls return to school.

Educational systems across the AU Member States have seen significant disruption due to the coronavirus pandemic. There is growing data and evidence that some measures taken for continuity of learning during the pandemic have in fact aggravated inequalities related to teaching and learning.

The pandemic heightened existing inequalities

While many governments in the continent turned to the internet, radio and television to provide remote learning for students during the school closures, limited internet access and hardware availability, both needed for distance learning, have left many girls without access.

Even before the global pandemic hit, only 17.8% of households in Africa had internet access at home and the continent accounts for only 21% of worldwide internet users. Africa also has a digital gender gap, with a 33.8% internet penetration rate for men and only 22.6 % for women in 2019.

In a COVID context, the reality means many girls simply do not have access to remote learning options, including through digital pathways. In addition to unequal access to technology, shuttered schools leave girls at increased risk of violence, child marriage, teenage pregnancy, exploitation and child labor.

AU/CIEFFA fears that many girls may simply not return as schools reopen.

This is compounded by the economic impact of COVID-19 on household incomes, as the continent faces its worst recession in 25 years. As families are affected financially, experience shows that in times of financial crisis, girls are the first to be taken out of school, put to work to help fend for the family and care for younger siblings.

Launch of #AfricaEducatesHer campaign

With this in mind, the AU/CIEFFA launched #AfricaEducatesHer last month, a campaign to bring awareness to the issues hindering girls and women from accessing education during the COVID-19 pandemic and a rallying call for youth, educators, civic organizations, AU Member States and development partners to take positive action now to guarantee girls returning to school as they gradually reopen.

At the launch, Dr. Mahama Ouedraogo, the African Union Human Resources, Science and Technology (AUHRST) Director, said:

We are facing a global pandemic like no other which threatens the progress made by AU Member States in terms of access, participation and completion at primary and secondary levels of education in the African educational landscape.

As part of the campaign, the AU/CIEFFA will highlight the experiences of female learners at primary, secondary and tertiary level during school closures.

They will also take recommendations from students, educators and human rights defenders from across Africa and the African diaspora on ways governments and development partners should promote and protect girls’ rights to education during times of crisis.

I reminded the audience that education is a basic human right and not a privilege, and that school closures harm girls in many ways, often with long-term consequences.

Once girls are taken out of schools, the probability of them going back is very low. This is not to say that we are forgetting the boys, but we should not forget that girls are most vulnerable.

Girls at increased risk of not returning to school

Like Ebola, COVID-19 shows that closing schools and education institutions heightens the vulnerability of women and girls.

Development partners and education ministries across Africa have hailed the leadership of the AU with the launch of the #AfricaEducatesHer campaign.

Continental action is needed to galvanize all stakeholders working to safeguard girls’ right to education and to spur collaboration and the sharing of best practices that promote the continuity of girls’ education in Africa.

During the launch, Justin Sass, Chief, Section of Education for Inclusion and Gender Equality at UNESCO, stressed: “We need to engage with teachers and school directors so they can understand what’s happened during the school closures and what are some of the things that girls’ have gone through, and the challenges they are going to need to address once kids come back to school.”

Development partners like the Global Partnership for Education, UNESCO and FAWE will need to play an integral role in supporting governments and community efforts to get girls back to school through more and better education financing, including supporting countries to improve domestic financing and provide teacher training.

As governments face triple economic shocks from COVID (declining national budgets, reduced donor funding and households pushed further into poverty), there is a risk of smaller budgets for education, including girls’ education.

The time to act is NOW and that’s why AU-CIEFFA is supporting the GPE led global movement to #RaiseYourHand to #FundEducation so #AfricaEducatesHer in times of COVID and beyond.

AU Member states that are also yet to ratify and domesticate regional and international legal instruments that allow girls access to education must act now to ensure decades of progress made by the continent towards the empowerment of girls’ and women through education does not go down the drain and that all girls’ return once schools reopen.

The #AfricaEducatesHer campaign calls on ministries responsible for education across member states to take official pledges and recommit to supporting and safeguarding girls’ rights, particularly to education.

A call to action for girls’ education post-COVID

In closing remarks, Dr. Mahama Ouedraogo urged those in attendance to work together in a scalable and impactful way at grassroots and community level to achieve goal 4 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals and Aspiration 6 of the AU Agenda 2063.

“We should synergistically formulate and implement relevant strategies and initiatives that put particular attention to the needs of the most vulnerable groups, in the remote areas, with disabilities and crisis situations, especially, girls and young women, particularly when designing catch-up strategies for all learners as schools re-open.” he said.

The AU/CIEFFA also announced a call for creative content asking African girls, students, human rights defenders and teachers to submit videos, blog articles, poems, photos and music showcasing their experiences with learning or teaching during COVID-19 & the initiatives they are taking to ensure girls in their local communities go back to school.

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