Women’s leadership and unlocking girls’ talent in the era of the coronavirus pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic is affecting women and girls disproportionately. Female leadership and ensuring that girls' education remains on top of the development agenda will help mitigate the effect of this and future pandemics.

April 06, 2020 by Victoria Egbetayo, Global Partnership for Education Secretariat and Boyeoluwatito Foluyinka Fakoya, Global Partnership for Education Secretariat
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5 minutes read
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Alice Albright and Ethiopian President Sahle-Work Zewde. Credit: GPE/Tim Kelly
Alice Albright and Ethiopian President Sahle-Work Zewde in Addis Ababa in early March 2020
GPE/Tim Kelly

In a span of just three months so much has changed globally, for each of us and for our organizations. Just last month we were celebrating International Women’s Day, and it already seems so long ago.

COVID-19 overshadows every aspect of our lives now. The virus has already taken many lives, and many things we took for granted are now disrupted, forcing us to operate in new ways. The pandemic challenges our collective social, political, and economic systems, throwing much of the world into a shared set of multiple crises.

While the crisis has taken much from humanity, in some ways it is also restoring our humanity: many of us have to slow down; families and communities are brought together in ways not seen for generations, and the world is seeing reduced pollution from fewer carbon emissions as economic activity slows.

Gaps in pandemic response and learning infrastructure in the face of a crisis

The crisis has highlighted glaring gaps in the world's pandemic response readiness and learning infrastructure in the face of the emergency. It’s highlighted that barriers to education do not lay solely in education and the importance of working across sectors for long-term solutions, including unlocking resources and expertise.

As with Ebola, COVID-19 is a health crisis preventing millions from going to school who may never step back into a classroom. The pandemic has turned many parents into untrained instructors, and galvanized a new appreciation for teachers and teaching. It has granted humanity a better understanding and appreciation of how much of a gift it is to be able to go school.

It also exposes the woeful inequality in infrastructure, ICT connectivity and otherwise, between poorer and wealthier nations for learning continuity, distance and digital learning.

Many low-income countries must rely on low-tech solutions when the rest of the world continues to try to move ahead and prepare itself for a post-crisis knowledge-based economy. Of course, there is a place for low tech options, but that’s precisely the point: These should be options as opposed to default solutions.

Alice Albright with Professor Sarah Anyang Agbor, African Union’s Commissioner for Human Resource, Science and Technology. Credit: GPE/Victoria Egbetayo
Alice Albright with Professor Sarah Anyang Agbor, African Union’s Commissioner for Human Resource, Science and Technology.
PME/Victoria Egbetayo

Impact of the pandemic on women and girls

The pandemic has exposed the unpaid care work women provide daily to society and their families. As Devex highlighted, ‘it’s largely women on the front line as health workers. Women represent 70% of the global health workforce.’

Yet, women make up just 25% of global health leadership, and are underrepresented in COVID-19 global health decision-making and leadership bodies. Symptomatic of our wider society, women continue to be underrepresented in political leadership and boardrooms, and in some regions, there is need for more female teachers and women in school leadership to serve as role models so more girls enter and stay in school.

As schools close and social distancing comes more into effect, girls are among the most vulnerable. As underscored by Angelina Jolie and Audrey Azoulay, with shut schools “early marriages increase, more children are recruited into militias, sexual exploitation of girls and young women rises, teenage pregnancies increase, and child labor rises.” All these have an impact on girls’ return to school, and we risk losing gains already registered on girls’ education. The opposite is also true: education significantly improves not only the life prospects of individuals, but the stability and prosperity of whole societies.

Important lessons and good practices must be learned from the Ebola epidemic and impact of school closures on girls. Education in emergencies also provides a useful body of knowledge on how to deal with this unprecedented crisis.

Education as a catalyst for more female leaders

By March 31, 382.5 million children were out of school due to nationwide school closures in 64 of 68 GPE partner countries. Although needed the unintentional consequences could widen inequalities. COVID-19 is amplifying the struggles children and youth across GPE partners countries already face in receiving quality education, and what this could mean for public education investments and external aid from what will already be stretched resources and far narrower fiscal space post crisis.

It also highlights the integral role education plays in fueling innovation and skilled talent needed to combat the next crisis and the important role education plays in fostering female leadership – the next doctors, nurses, scientists and technologists needed to fight the next pandemic.

Education is a catalyst for female leaders as exemplified by the many female leaders heading up global education agencies – GPE, UNESCO, UNICEF and ECW and a number of major NGOs. At country level, this is also exemplified by President Sahle-Work Zewde, Ethiopia first female president and only female head of state in Africa and Chair of the International Futures of Education Commission.

In a visit to Ethiopia just ahead of the massive global outbreak of COVID-19, Alice Albright, CEO of the Global Partnership for Education and Advisory Board member of the Futures of Education Commission, met with President Zwede to discuss women and girls’ leadership, closing the gender gap, expanding girls’ access to education at all levels and women taking on more decision-making and political roles. They also talked about the need to transform education, ensure it’s fit for the future and relevant to needs of young people and their economies.

COVID-19 helping connect the dots

If anything, COVID-19 is forcing the global education community to step away from business as usual, work even more in partnership, identify alternative ways for children and teachers to continue learning remotely, and in remote areas have access to safe, quality education resources for teaching and distance learning. 

At the regional level, Professor Sarah Anyang Agbor, African Union’s Commissioner for Human Resource, Science and Technology noted on the same prescient visit to Ethiopia, it’s important we connect the DOTSS in education : D – digital connectivity, which involves connecting every school to the internet; O – online platforms for learning to complement offline learning in classrooms; T – teachers as facilitators of learning; S – safety in school and online; S – skills which are foundational, job oriented and teach children how to learn.

Let us celebrate the women that have taken up the call in the fight against the pandemic, recognize the men who have supported gender equality, and work towards ensuring we avoid unintended consequences so that every girl has an equal chance of using her skills for economic and social progress. 

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Indeed the pandemic has unearthed inequalities in the education system. The rural or remote areas in sub Sahara Africa are disadvantaged with the online education, TV education channels and internet lessons introduced globally.
As our case in Zambia's Lusangazi district of Eastern province at New Mzumwa Primary school is located in the remotest part of the country. School is surrounded by peasant farmers who literally dont know how internet is all about neither do they have access to smart phones. It is not fair to conduct online lessons with such communities. As a school we are trying our level best by giving take home assignments then learners submit weekly. Some parents and learners who have simple mobile phones we are texting questions to their homes.
We must look forward and give a facelift to developing countries with much attention to remote areas were people are living in abject poverty and Education is their only hope.
Much rural schools lack access to computers as in our case, the school only has one computer against 678 enrollment which is a real struggle for a child to have a feel of a keyboard.
Much resources are needed to avoid the what the world is going through currently.

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