Whether political, economic, health, natural disaster or conflict-related, crises systematically exacerbate existing inequalities around the world. Today, on International Day of the Girl 2020, we share some of the increasing inequalities experienced by girls due to the Covid-19 pandemic and suggest how education can mitigate these.
Coincidentally, 2020 should have been a year of celebration for girls. It marks the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, to date the “most progressive roadmap for gender equality”. In 1995, the Beijing Conference ended with a vision – a world where every woman and every girl could exercise their freedoms and choices and know and understand all their rights.
Such ambition wished to guarantee everyone the right to education, eradicating illiteracy, improving access to training, science and technology and lifelong education, allocate sufficient resources to it and eliminate all gender discrimination. But, it is clear that 25 years later, despite a renewal of commitments upon adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, the situation of young girls, even if it has improved, has not changed enough to fulfill the original vision.
Currently, 130 million young girls worldwide are still excluded from education, one in four girls between 15 and 19 years old is neither employed nor in training, 13 million girls between 15 and 19 years old have been abused in their lives, and one in three adolescent girls between 15 and 19 years old is forcibly subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM) in more than 30 countries.
Gender equality far from being achieved
This year’s global pandemic is not just a health emergency but also the greatest education emergency of our time which is also exacerbating pre-existing gender inequalities and affecting the lives of young girls on a daily basis and in a disproportionate manner.
At the height of the crisis in April 2020, more than 1.6 billion students were deprived of education, including more than 760 million girls. Many girls who already had to face countless challenges to go to school – such as household chores, responsibilities for taking care of siblings, unaffordable school, distance from schools, lack of toilets and safe water, education deemed not necessary for girls by parents or communities, child marriage, teen pregnancy, and more – have been deprived of access to education because of the lockdown measures.
In more than four out of ten low and middle income countries, no measures have been taken to support children during the crisis and sadly girls have been the some of the most affected. Even when lessons were taught via the internet or mobile apps, girls have been the last to benefit, as a digital and gendered divide locks them out of accessing technology too.
Inequalities and discrimination aggravated by COVID-19
The current crisis poses a great risk that we will not see many young girls return to school.. the economic fallout from the pandemic worsens around the globe, parents are likely to be more reluctant to pay school fees, uniforms or even materials for girls. UNESCO estimates that 11 million girls will not take up their studies again. A report published by Malala Fund estimates this number could be as high as 20 million girls globally, citing that “In a crisis like COVID-19, girls and young women are the first to be removed from school and the last to return”.
Girls who are out of school are also more at risk of resorting to harmful work or falling prey to various forms of exploitation. According to World Vision, 4 million girls are at risk of being married in the next two years due to COVID-19 as families under financial strain struggle to cope. School closures make girls more vulnerable to teen pregnancy. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, more than 1 million girls became pregnant during the pandemic. They will certainly not return to school, as young pregnant girls or mothers are rarely accepted in schools.
Emergency: ensure that girls’ rights are respected
Faced with such alarming situation, what can be done? Allow young girls to return to school as quickly as possible and create the conditions for universal education for girls. The answer is simple but not so easy to implement since decades after the start of the fight, millions of girls are still excluded from education.
At a time when the reconstruction of the economic system is needed, when the creation of a fairer and more resilient world is called for, to ensure that no girl is any longer excluded and vulnerable, only because of gender, is an international emergency.
Educating young girls not only provides them with more opportunities to take control over their own lives and exercises their voices but also to contribute economically to their homes and societies. Educating young girls will lead to them access better nutrition, to benefit from health services and from child protection programs. Educating young girls will enable them to become agents of change, lending them the knowledge to know their rights and demand them. Education is a human right that must be upheld for all children, everywhere.