In an effort to reduce the transmission of Covid-19, governments around the world have ordered their schools to close. These closures mean that approximately 90% of all students are out of school and amongst them, more than 800 million girls. A large proportion of this number is made up of girls who live in developing countries, and who already face barriers in accessing primary and secondary school education. School closures do little to reduce this recurrent problem, and actually have the potential to exacerbate the gender inequalities which are entrenched in many societies.
Whilst there will be girls who continue with their education once schools reopen, there are many who will not. The Malala Fund has estimated that 20 million girls in developing countries will never enter a classroom again. Two points need to be recognised. First, that girls are a particularly vulnerable, but overlooked group in the Covid-19 pandemic. Second, unless measures are taken by governments to understand the gender dimensions of school closures, the gender disparity will widen and have a significant impact on girls’ life chances.
Sexual and Reproductive Barriers to Education Re-Entry
Alongside school closures, governments across the world have also ordered their sexual and reproductive clinics to close, on the grounds that these services do not meet the “essential” criteria. The disruption to what is an essential service has meant that it is more difficult for girls to return to the classroom. Due to increased risks of neonatal and maternal mortality and morbidity; increased rates of adolescent and unwanted pregnancy; HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, girls might drop out of school. Past humanitarian crises such as the Ebola Crisis, have shown school closures led to rises in teenage pregnancy and that once schools reopened, girls were banned from attending due to community stigma. It is likely that in the period after Covid lockdowns, there will be similar increases in drop-out rates as girls of schooling age are forced to get married at an early age.
In many developing countries, Covid-19 has worsened the problem of period poverty, which has a direct impact on girls’ attendance rates at school. In Malawi, one of the world’s most poorest countries, only 24% of schools are able to offer adequate sanitary facilities. A single sanitation product in the country is equivalent to a working day’s wage. For many young girls, they will consider themselves lucky if they are able to find spare pieces of cloth or clean paper to resemble a pad or a tampon. Stigmas surrounding menstruation mean that girls are forced to miss out on school. UNICEF has made the grave prediction that 1 in 10 African girls of schooling age do not attend school during menstruation. These drop-out rates are linked to girls and women finding it difficult to concentrate in school due to the burden that comes with not having hygienic sanitary protection and having to constantly wash and reuse unsafe products.
Governments should recognise that forced closures of sexual and reproductive health care services can be detrimental to women and girls’ lives in a number of ways. Not only does this have a direct impact on their health, it also means they are likely to obtain a lower level of education. These services should be reclassified as ‘essential’. This new classification would prioritise these services, enable girls to use the services that they need, remove stigma and ensure that girls would be able to safely re-attend schools, without the burden of health problems. Developed countries should give a greater amount of aid to developing countries and enable them to secure access to safe period products.
Domestic Pressures To Drop-Out
Alongside sexual and reproductive healthcare needs which make it difficult for women and girls to attend school, the domestic pressures placed upon them should also be recognised. as families consider the costs of their daughters’ education. Covid-19 has exacerbated the extreme poverty, economic vulnerability and crisis in places where gender disparities in education are already at its highest. As a result, more families are now forced to make trade-off decisions as to whether their daughter should attend school or work for pay.
Forced school closures means that many families can use this situation to encourage their daughters to work and provide for the family. This decision can lead to girls becoming the primary caregiver or earner for their families. Policy-makers and governments must recognise that a gendered perspective should inform a large part of their school reopening plans and try to find ways for girls to continue learning.
It is shocking how quickly terms like “childhood as motherhood”, “child marriage”, “child as breadwinner and caregiver” have become normalised in parts of the world and raises three questions. First, how did the economic situation ever come to be so dire in these countries and what can be done to improve this, so millions of girls do not suffer the same fate each year? Secondly, how could decades of progress made by bodies like the UN Girls’ Initiative and UN Women in educating girls be lost so rapidly? Thirdly, shouldn’t policymakers recognise that in developing countries where there are already large gender inequalities in education, Covid-19 will only widen the gap?
Policymakers must also recognise that gender disparities in education are a real problem and attention needs to be given to those girls in developing countries who will suffer the most. It is essential that a gendered perspective is taken to tackle both, the sexual and reproductive healthcare needs and the domestic pressures placed upon girls, in order to enable them to return safely to school. Ultimately, policymakers and governments must recognise that the economic impacts of Covid-19 are not experienced uniformly and develop their policy responses in such a way that takes account of the unique experiences of gender and poverty.