Gender roles and norms tend to exacerbate during crises, and the COVID-19 pandemic is not an exception. Prolonged school closures have disproportionately affected girls as it has meant more than just a pause in learning for them. Girls should be at the center of the recovery strategies which must acknowledge the fundamental role that school plays in enhancing the fulfillment of their most fundamental rights.
We still do not know the magnitude of the consequences that the COVID-19 pandemic will bring to societies in the longer term, but, without a doubt, prolonged school closures will have one of the most critical impacts for today’s younger generations. Children from all around the world have been affected by the suspension of in-person teaching in very different ways. Due to the measures taken to restrain the pandemic many children have been prevented from realizing some of their fundamental rights, like having access to education. However, not all have been affected equally; the family’s socioeconomic background has played a role in defining children’s losses during these months, especially in the poorest countries. Additionally, gender has greatly determined how children were and still are affected by the suspension of in-person classes, putting girls in very vulnerable positions compared to their male peers.
Given the structural discrimination against women in the form of patriarchal, cultural and social norms that play a central role in some societies, girls have been disproportionately affected by this pandemic. Different moments in recent history have shown that during crises, such as epidemics, wars, conflicts and weather-related disasters, gender roles and norms tend to exacerbate. This means that women and girls are expected to take on unpaid household and care work while their male counterparts are expected to provide for their families. For girls, this often means that their education becomes a second priority. The COVID-19 pandemic is not the exception; these dynamics have permeated girls’ lives since the crisis started, especially with the closure of schools, which has meant more than just a pause in learning for them.
Schools play a key role in girls’ lives for many reasons. They enhance their chances to fulfill more than just their right to education, as they represent a safe place that often keeps them from being exposed to risks such as family, sexual and gender-based violence. In many countries, schools also represent a place where girls and boys have access to social services such as feeding programs and psychological support. It has been proved that the longer girls stay in school, the less likely they will marry and have children at a young age (1). Staying in school also improves their chances to continue studying and avoid health risks related to early pregnancy. Likewise, it can mean an opportunity for girls to receive sexual education and to access information that can allow them to get to know their rights and make informed choices regarding their reproductive lives.
In Latin America, close to two out of ten teenage girls and young women have children, and the rate is higher among those who belong to Afro-descendant and indigenous groups. Most of these pregnancies are the result of sexual violence and abuse. According to The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the COVID-19 pandemic could represent a setback of five years in reducing the teenage fertility rate in this region. This means that it can increase from 61 to 65 live births for every 1,000 girls and young women aged 15 to 19. Due to the reassignment of budgeted resources to deal with the pandemic, access to contraceptive methods and sexual and reproductive health services has decreased, especially in low and middle-income countries. Worldwide, the UNFPA estimates that nearly 12 million women lost access to contraception due to the pandemic, which has led to around 1.4 million unintended pregnancies. Moreover, the factors that trigger violence against women and girls have been aggravated as a result of preventive confinement measures increasing girls’ exposure to domestic abuse.
The Ebola outbreak in 2014 is an example of how sanitary crises such as this one can aggravate the social disadvantages that girls face. In Sierra Leone schools were closed for nine months, and once they reopened 32% of young girls from the most affected villages did not re-enroll (2). The outbreak caused food insecurity and loss of household incomes, which forced children and young people to support their families by working. Given the post-outbreak crisis, many of them retained these responsibilities, which meant they dropped out of school permanently. Teen pregnancies also rose significantly; it is estimated that over 18,100 girls between the ages of 15 and 19 became pregnant during the Ebola outbreak (3), reversing some of the progress the country had made in previous years. Most of them never re-enrolled in school.
Furthermore, when households experience poverty and lack resources to pay for their children’s schooling and their associated costs, families will more likely choose to invest in their son’s education rather than in their daughter’s (4). This is because men’s returns on education are higher than those for women. These embedded cultural norms and implicit biases that disfavor girls and women tend to have a substantial weight in households’ decision-making, especially during difficult times.
According to UNESCO, before the pandemic, 132 million girls between the ages of 6 and 17 were out of school. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is estimated that around 11.2 million additional girls may not return to school. As schools reopen and start operating under hybrid schemes, children are being able to resume their education; however, many girls will not go back. Girls from disadvantaged backgrounds who were excluded from online distance learning, who have acquired domestic and care responsibilities, and who became pregnant and were married off are at risk of being left out permanently. This has lifelong economic impacts for them and their communities.Today more than ever children, and especially girls, should be at the center of the recovery strategies. If girls are denied their rights their childhood is undermined, and this will have consequences during their lifetime. Recognizing that schools play a key role in promoting girls’ fulfillment of their most fundamental rights, and having strong gender-sensitive responses today, is crucial for securing a better and more resilient future for them.
Cecilia Berlanga Alessio Robles
- Cutler D. M. and Lleras-Muney, A., “Education and Health: Insights from International Comparisons”, National Bureau of Economic Research, 2012.
- Bandiera, O. et. al. “The Economic Lives of Young Women in the Time of Ebola: Lessons from an Empowerment Program”, World Bank, 2018.
- Pärnebjörk, A. “Left out and let down: A study on empowerment and access to education for young mothers in post-Ebola Sierra Leone”, 2016.
- Dollar, D. and Gatti, R. “Gender Inequality, Income, and Growth: Are Good Times Good for Women?” World Bank, 1999.