In this joint op-ed, Alice Albright along with Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen and Tiffany Drake, make the case on how the COVID-19 pandemic will amplify existing inequalities and that girls’ education will disproportionately suffer as a result. 10 million more secondary-school aged girls may never set foot in a classroom again.
As governments plan to reopen schools, they must do everything possible to encourage girls to return, including by removing barriers that might keep them from continuing their education and preparing to meet the needs of female students.
This op-ed was originally published in The Telegraph.
The pandemic amplifies existing inequalities – and girls’ education will disproportionately suffer as a result
Pauline has lived through a lockdown before. When she was 19, the Ebola virus swept across Liberia. Schools were closed for seven months.
When they re-opened, thousands of girls were unable to return because they had to go to work to keep their families fed, got pregnant or were married early – but boys didn’t face the same barriers. The injustice of this gave Pauline a mission: “We must ensure both boys and girls are equally educated.”
Half a decade later, Pauline is out of school again – one of 350 million girls and young women in developing countries whose lives have been upended by school closures to stem the spread of Covid-19.
While it’s too early to know the extent of learning that will be lost, we know that crises amplify existing inequalities and that girls’ education will disproportionately suffer as a result. Ten million more secondary-school aged girls may never set foot in a classroom again.
This would be a huge loss, and not just for these girls. Educated women are vital to public health and economic recovery. And the recent success of women-led nations in fighting the coronavirus illustrates how crucial it is for both girls and boys to see themselves as doctors, scientists and Prime Ministers to confront the challenges of the future.
This won’t happen without education. As governments plan to reopen schools, they must do everything possible to encourage girls to return. This starts with removing barriers that might keep them from continuing their education, especially policies that ban pregnant girls and young mothers from schools.
It also means preparing to meet the needs of female students, as in Mozambique, where, with funding from the Global Partnership for Education, schools will be equipped with proper toilets and adolescent girls will receive free menstrual pads when they re-enroll.
Teachers looking to close learning gaps will need to consider that girls are more likely than boys to have to balance distance learning with domestic chores and other household responsibilities.
These measures are important, but the real work to improve girls’ education begins outside the classroom, by addressing deep-rooted and harmful gender norms in communities. Dr Kakenya Ntaiya knows this struggle better than most.
Engaged at age five, she rejected a future as a child bride and went on to earn her PhD in education before returning to rural Kenya to create change for other girls. She founded Kakenya’s Dream and joined the Girls Opportunity Alliance Network, a community of more than 3,500 grassroots leaders focused on adolescent girls' education.
Since the early 2000s, Kenya has made huge strides in getting all girls and boys enrolled in primary school, although girls in remote and rural areas still face barriers to staying in school and continuing their education.
Dr Ntaiya is worried that the coronavirus will cause this hard-won progress to slip away. “We cannot leave [girls] behind amidst the chaos surrounding the pandemic,” she says.
As governments across the globe respond to Covid-19 by investing money to bolster their health systems, there are indications that some African countries are cutting education budgets. This would be a disaster, especially for girls, given how critical education is to children’s health, safety, and growth.
By overlooking education in their Covid-19 response, countries are missing important opportunities for recovery. In many communities, schools play a vital role in disseminating accurate health information and act as a hub for rolling out health programs. Investing in education, for example by building classrooms and printing textbooks, could also provide an immediate injection of jobs into cash-strapped communities and businesses.
Pauline, who is now a member of the Girls Advocacy Alliance with Plan International, sees an opportunity for her government to invest in the future by closing the digital divide.
Countries in the Eastern Caribbean are among those who are already doing this by brokering partnerships with technology providers to get children online and given them free access to learning platforms.
By taking this long view, governments are building resilience to future school closures while equipping children and young people – particularly girls and women, who make up only 3 per cent of students studying ICT worldwide – with the skills they will need in the modern world.
Getting more girls into careers in science, technology, engineering will help them find jobs and contribute to the economies of the future – in fields that may also hold the key to preventing and withstanding the next great pandemic.
Amid the disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic, girls and young women like Pauline see what others have not – a window for change. We must work with them to seize this moment.
Alice Albright is CEO of the Global Partnership for Education; Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen is CEO of Plan International; and Tiffany Drake is Executive Director of the Girls Opportunity Alliance.