Girls' education hit hard by COVID. We must do everything to change this

Girls’ education hit hard by COVID. We must do everything we can to change this

It’s been more than a year since COVID-19 lockdowns took kids physically out of school all over the world, and now we’re starting to get a better picture of just how this has impacted girls.

Unfortunately, the outcomes have not been good, with a rise in child marriage and gender-based violence recorded across the Southeast Asia and Pacific regions, according to a new report from Plan International Australia.

In Indonesia, for example, there have been an estimated 33,000 child marriages in 2020 — an uptick from previous years which had been showing an overall downward trend.

In Bangladesh, Plan highlights a study showing that beatings by parents or guardians had increased 42% during the pandemic period, while the volume of calls to the country’s child helpline has rised by 40%.

As we know, 130 million girls were already out of school prior to the pandemic — and, based on what occurred during other major events internationally, including the Ebola outbreak — we had a good idea that without considerable effort, the COVID-19 pandemic would set back major initiatives for achieving gender equality internationally.

The reality is, as expected, that taking girls out of school for health safety reasons does in many cases mean that those same girls may face other risks at home. They may also never actually return to school at all.

Girls’ education is a significant aspect of achieving gender equality worldwide. It is the key to increasing women’s economic participation, for keeping birth rates low, and giving girls and women the vital tools and information they need for supporting their families and their community.

Plan’s research finds that many girls were forced to drop out of school as a result of lockdowns, taking on domestic duties and in many cases forced into early marriages. Plan also recorded an increase in domestic violence.

Their findings also include 445 online surveys received from girls aged 15 to 19 across Southeast Asia and the Pacific, with overall results that:

  • 59% of girls said online study was near impossible when they shifted to learning from home
  • Of the above, 60% said they had unreliable internet, 29% said they felt unsafe online and 20% said they were unable to access devices in order to learn.
  • Meanwhile, two in five adolescent girls reported feeling unsafe at home and/or unsafe with their intimate parter at times

In addition to these surveys, Plan also conducted a number of workshops and noted significant impacts of school closures on the mental health and emotional well being of girls. They have featured voices of girls from Vietnam, Indonesia and Kiribati.

With this report, Plan is calling on the Morrison Government to increase its commitment to the Global Partnership for Education, in order to help get more girls back into school. Australia has already fallen well behind leading donor countries in committing to this initiative: with Australia committing $30 million a year, well short of donations from the UK, US, France and Germany.

The time is now to step in and assist — with what has, in many cases, become a lost year on children’s education. We must ensure that girls internationally, but particularly in our own region, have every opportunity to complete 12 years of school.

As Plan International Australia CEO Susanne Legena says, those girls within the 10 to 19 age bracket are living through a pivotal moment that will determine the trajectory of their lives and the education they will or will not receive. “It’s a time when families make decisions as to whether girls marry, take on low paid work or continue their education,” she said.

She notes that investments by Australia in supporting girls to complete 12 years of education is one of the best investments we can make when it comes to aid and development in the region.

“We know that 12 years of girls’ education could provide the economic benefits that will help power the much-needed economic recovery in the region.” 

“Now is the time for Australia to redouble its efforts as champion of girls’ education by increasing its commitment to the Global Partnership for Education as well as prioritising girls’ access to secondary education as part of its COVID-19 response and recovery plan in the region. 

Plan concedes that their findings do not reveal an exhaustive list of the barriers that girls are currently facing when it comes to their education, but the report is an opportunity to hear the voices of girls, including on what’s getting in the way of their education.

And right now, it’s clear from these voices at least that so much more needs to be done. Gender equality has been set back internationally thanks to the pandemic, we must ensure that all recovery efforts highlight the value and necessity for girls’ education.

Pictured above: Oldi in Indonesia, with one of 1000 solar radios that Plan has distributed in Soe, East Nusa Tenggara, where children are still out of school and learning from home, but just one in five have access to the radio they need for effective and reliable education support.

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