In this period of widespread uncertainty and change, the long-term effects of this pandemic could be devastating for girls education efforts worldwide. The threat of COVID-19 has not only put many at-risk children worldwide out of school temporarily, but has served as an especially damaging hit to girls education efforts in developing countries, where many female students already have limited access to equitable education and are at a high risk of dropping out. Facing food insecurity and financial instability, many families may choose not to send their daughters back to school in order to save money and expand household income. Furthermore, stay-at-home orders can increase the threat of gender-based violence towards girls as wells as the risks of child marriage, female genital mutilation, and early childbearing. Coronavirus has exposed a frightening reality in the developing world: despite the harsh realities of what girls may face if not in school, this pandemic has left many families with no alternatives. After months of inconsistent online schooling or no schooling at all, we cannot afford another setback to gender equity education initiatives around the world.
According to a recent report by the Malala Fund (1), around 10 million secondary-school-age girls could be out of school due to the COVID-19 crisis. The 2008 financial crisis and the Ebola epidemic of 2014-15 are strong indicators of what the long-term consequences of Coronavirus may be for girls education. During the Ebola crisis, students lost an estimated 1,848 hours of education over the 30+ weeks that they were out of school, representing a loss of up to 50% of girls’ total education time in some of the lowest income countries (1). Places like Liberia saw many girls become their families’ main breadwinner, and in Sierra Leone, 19% more girls between the ages of 12 and 17 were involved in some income-generating work (1). Additionally, direct effects on education enrollment were seen in countries like Guinea, where girls were found to be 25% less likely to enroll in secondary school following the Ebola pandemic than boys (1).
With these challenges in mind, many schools have had to adapt to this new educational landscape. Girls Education Collaborative (GEC), a nonprofit based out of Buffalo, NY, works to ensure that girls’ educational opportunities are not limited simply because of their gender--and is currently working with the Immaculate Heart Sisters of Africa to support their Kitenga Secondary School for Girls in rural Tanzania. With the disruption of COVID-19, GEC and the Sisters have been focusing on new locally-identified priorities to improve access to facilities in case of an emergency, create an on-campus health clinic, and ensure food security for students, among other goals.
Schools like the Kitenga Secondary School for Girls have had to look for mechanisms to support students academically and emotionally while not on campus and have had to come up with plans should coronavirus threaten in-person schooling or make schooling inconsistent in the coming months. Services like Shule Direct in Tanzania and BRCK Kio Kits in Kenya and Rwanda provide several options for students that can withstand inconsistent WiFi (a major logistical challenge of shifting learning online in the developing world), and these services are especially important for students in places that have less of a clear timeframe on reopening. Although Tanzanian schools were mandated to open on June 29th, Kenya, for example, is expecting schools to remain closed until at least September--creating varying online education needs within Africa.
COVID-19 is but another instance in a long strand of global crises that have rocked the developing world in recent years, and it will likely not be the last. Looking forward to the future of education in developing countries, COVID-19 has been especially impactful in exposing the deep and persistent fault-lines of educational accessibility. Even during this time, governments need to continue to break down policies that limit girls’ school enrollment through measures like allowing pregnant girls to still attend school, waiving exam fees, increasing sexuality education, and having adequate water and sanitation in schools (including gender-separated bathrooms) (1). Additionally, governments might also consider utilizing cash transfers, radio programming, and meal collection services (with funding that once went towards in-school meals) to support students more immediately.
These problems can seem daunting, and will take a great deal of local, national, and international effort to fully tackle them. Despite this, there are ways that we personally can get involved. Many organizations like CAMFED, the Malala Fund, and GEC itself are accepting volunteers in local chapters, or are always accepting donations to critical projects that benefit girls education efforts. There are also a tremendous amount of girls education and feminist blogs, publications, and books that we can use to educate ourselves on these issues--Melinda Gates’ book, “The Moment of Lift,” as well as blogs like Everyday Feminism and World Pulse itself are just a few media pieces that come to mind. Additionally, instead of using social media solely through the popular but often ineffective media campaigns we frequently see, we can use our followings to spread the word about organizations, publications, projects, and female leaders that are making a difference both for girls education and women’s empowerment as a whole.
There is no doubt that this pandemic will hurt education systems in the developing world. Many families are currently struggling to put food on the table, maintain a stable income, and shift household responsibilities--often putting education (especially girls education) near the bottom of the priority list. However, If schools and governments restructure resources to prioritize the health, accessibility, and enrollment of students as described above, we have a shot at minimizing these effects. Additionally, through educating ourselves and combating the inequities facing girls education efforts worldwide, we can begin creating a culture that recognizes women’s rights to equality and an education. For the sake of the millions of students affected, we at least have to try. The future depends upon it.