They’re calling it the shadow pandemic. And a generation of girls worldwide will suffer its consequences.
As Australians begin to emerge from lockdown having avoided the nightmare scenarios we’ve seen in the USA and Europe, a secondary, longer-lasting and potentially more devastating global fallout is unfolding.
Millions of girls are at risk. In many countries, we are witnessing the erosion of their rights as lockdowns continue and economies suffer.
Just this week the United Nations has predicted the number of people living in extreme poverty (that is, earning less than $2.80 a day) could increase from 700 million to 1.1 billion as a result of COVID-19. And when poverty bites, it is adolescent girls in particular who pay a heavy toll.
This emergency has already caused a sharp uptick in potentially deadly unintended pregnancies, child marriages, and sexual abuse. It continues to severely restrict access to vital sexual and reproductive health information and services.
Complications during pregnancy are the number one killer of girls aged 15 to 19-years-old worldwide. According to the latest UN projections, a lockdown of just six months will result in seven million unintended pregnancies, with thousands of young lives at risk. Over the next decade, we could also see 13 million more cases of child marriage and two million more cases of female genital mutilation due to the impact of COVID-19.
Just this week we’ve heard horrible reports of rape increasing in South Sudan. In Somalia, our own Head of Mission was approached by a man offering ‘door to door’ female genital mutilation (FGM). There is anecdotal evidence that FGM is rising here in Australia, too.
We are staring down the barrel of an extremely serious and widespread health emergency for girls and young women that will have long-term implications for their futures. Many may never recover.
Without a concerted effort to respond to the specific risks to girls, we face a terrible reality that many of the gains in gender equality and girls’ rights we’ve made over the past few decades will vanish.
So for aid agencies like Plan International, we have an incredibly arduous task ahead of us.
What can we do about this? How can we turn this around for girls and start to recover so many of the gains we’ve made in recent decades? How do we do this in an incredibly tough economic environment with the odds stacked against us in so many ways?
We think the answer lies with girls themselves. They must be put at the heart of the solutions and play a role in their own recovery and realisation of their rights.
Since March, Plan International has been responding to COVID-19 in at least 50 countries. Our focus is — and will remain — on protecting and supporting girls and advocating for girls to be included in immediate and long-term responses to the pandemic.
We want girls to know that we are listening to them. We will ensure their voices and lobby for governments to ensure they take a gendered response to this pandemic. We will make sure they have every chance of continuing their education, of being able to choose who they marry, when they marry and whether they have children, to be free from violence and to have the means to study, work and fulfil their potential.
The truth is, we will never progress as a society until the rights of all people are realised. This crisis will not be over until it’s over everywhere and until we’ve reclaimed the rights we’ve worked so hard to win for girls.
We hope you will support us and follow us on our journey to help girls impacted by COVID-19. I hope that you’ll continue to check into this content hub to keep tabs on the situation for girls and learn about the amazing work that is going on to overcome these massive challenges as we update you on our progress and bring you important news from our global efforts.
We know girls everywhere — while facing grave risks — are also presented with an opportunity. This pandemic has pressed paused and caused a rethink of so many ways of living, working and schooling. We have an opportunity now to create a new world for girls: one that benefits all of us.
Girls and young women themselves have told us what this world looks like and their vision is truly awesome and that is where we draw our inspiration from in the tough months and years ahead. So I will end this piece, not with my words, but with what young women we work with told us when we asked them the question of what a post-COVID world looks like for them.
We envision a society with no prejudices; an open-minded community where gender does not limit opportunities, safety, or acceptance. An empathic world where girls and women in all our diversities have a say in the decisions affecting our bodies and quality of life. Each voice is respected and empowered. In this new world, roles and responsibilities — including domestic chores — are shared equally. Girls will live and learn in a world that appreciates them and recognises their true capability. They will no longer be forced into early marriage, but supported and encouraged to make their own decisions and pursue their dreams, free from gender stereotypes. They will be free, safe and equal.