Displacement, girls' education and COVID-19

Since we estimate that up to 10 million more girls could be out of secondary school when this pandemic is over, with those living in refugee contexts being the most at risk, we need to make sure that the support put in place by governments during this pandemic also targets girls and refugee communities.

June 26, 2020 by Naomi Nyamweya, Malala Fund
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3 minutes read
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Young girls in class at the Public Primary School of Klessoum in the Chari-Baguirmi Region in Chad. February 2019
Credit: GPE/Carine Durand

Malala Fund’s Girls’ Education and COVID-19 report estimates up to 10 million more girls could be out of secondary school when this pandemic is over. Girls living in refugee contexts are among the most at risk.

More than half of the 79.5 million people who are internally displaced or living as refugees are children. Forced to flee their homes due to conflict, persecution or natural disaster, refugee girls often experience years of insecurity.

Some never return to school. Girls are less than half as likely as boys to attend secondary school. The girls who do reenter often continue to face issues like child marriage, poverty, discrimination, language barriers or overwhelmed schools.

These problems are compounded when health and financial crises hit.

To assess how COVID-19 could impact refugee girls’ education, we applied the methodology used in developing our report to UNHCR’s latest data on refugee education.

In sampling the number of refugee girls attending secondary school in 10 countries that have quality gender disaggregated data (Cameroon, Chad, Ethiopia, Iraq, Kenya, Malaysia, Pakistan, Rwanda, Turkey and Uganda), we estimate that half of all girls will not return when classrooms reopen.

For countries where the refugee girls' gross secondary enrollment is less than 10%, like Ethiopia and Pakistan, all girls are at risk of dropping out for good.

The good news: we are making progress. In 2018, secondary school enrollment for refugees rose from 23% to 24%. This may seem incremental, but the growth represents tens of thousands of students.

To prevent COVID-19 from undoing these hard-won gains, we need to see targeted support for girls’ education and refugee communities from governments.

Several governments are working to engage students during the pandemic using distance learning initiatives. But not enough of these plans address the needs specific to refugee students.

Refugees are half as likely than the general population to have an internet-enabled phone. Harmful gender norms and safety concerns make some parents reluctant to allow girls access to devices. And 29% of refugees have no phone at all.

Local activists like Malala Fund Education Champion Nayla Fahed are leading creative solutions and making education more accessible. Her organization, Lebanese Alternative Learning (LAL), is providing children, particularly refugees, access to their digital curriculum, Tabshoura.

The program is powered by a box that works independently of internet and electricity, which is key for low-resource environments like refugee communities.

By equipping girls with STEM skills, Nayla also hopes to challenge social norms and equip refugee girls with the tools they need to support themselves and their communities.

We need more governments to show that same level of innovation around the continuity of learning and preparing the resumption of school. As they develop their COVID-19 response plans, we hope leaders will:

  • Factor in gender and displaced communities when planning for schools to reopen. This is a chance to make classrooms better by enacting progressive national, subnational and school-level policies.
  • Maintain financing for refugee education and ensure it benefits boys and girls equally. Building gender-responsiveness into education planning and budgeting is key to reaching girls most impacted by the crisis.
  • Encourage girls to re-enroll by providing cash transfers and waiving examination fees. This helps keep poverty from being a barrier and offsets lost income from girls not working.
  • Offer remedial, accelerated or catch up education to girls. This helps girls who struggled to learn from at home during the pandemic from falling behind.

Refugee girls from all around the world are calling attention to their experiences of displacement - of having to choose between safety and school.

These girls are eager to learn and pursue their dreams. They also want to make it easier for the next generation of girls to do the same.

As leaders work to mitigate the effects of COVID-19, Malala Fund encourages them to invest in education and ensure a future where all girls can learn and lead.

Editor's note: A previous version of this blog stated that 1 in 5 girls may not return to school. That estimate was not correct and has been updated to "half of all girls may not return to school".

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Middle East and North Africa: Lebanon

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