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While the closing of schools will affect us all, it will affect especially girl child education in the poorest countries around the world.
Corona Virus or COVID-19 has totally changed our life. Everything is at a standstill and everyone is social distancing themselves. In these times of extreme uncertainty, when will we get our old lives back, is the question on everyone’s minds.
As far as children are concerned, while the closure of schools will affect us all, it will affect especially girls, and particularly girls from the least developed countries around the world.
The latest press release by the UNESCO says that this virus and the ensuing global lockdown will increase gender gaps, lead to sexual exploitation, pregnancy and early marriages among adolescent girls in the least developed countries of the world.
For girls in such countries, gaining education is very difficult even in normal conditions due to poverty, economic disparity and crisis – the UNESCO mentioned countries such as Mali, South Sudan and Niger, which have among the lowest rates of girls enrolled in school, worldwide. It is estimated that about 4 million girls will not be going to school because of the virus. Female refugees will particularly suffer from the impact, as they are already displaced and hence at a disadvantage.
When the Ebola Virus affected the world in 2014, poverty levels increased and education enrolment dropped especially in countries of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. The closure of school led to girls becoming vulnerable towards sexual exploitation and physical abuse by older men as well as peers because they tended to stay at home and often, unsupervised.
As many families died of Ebola, people had their daughters married off as they believed it would provide them protection. Many girls were affected by early, adolescent pregnancy. The rate rose to 65% in Sierra Leone and a study stated that the girls attributed this rise to lack of the protective environment which the school provided. Most girls weren’t even allowed to go to school because pregnant women weren’t allowed to attend.
Education acts as a lifeline to these girls as it imparts them with the skills and knowledge they need to fulfil their dreams for a better future. The COVID-19 aftermath is slated to cause economic instability worldwide. It will affect the least developed countries the most as people in dire poverty will not want to spend money on girls’ education and rather, they would want to have them married off so that some of the ‘burden’ is reduced.
UNESCO recommends that governments and leaders need to learn from the lessons of past crises and ensure that girls’ right to education is protected even after the COVID-19 crisis passes.
UNESCO’s recommendations include that the government needs to work closely with schools and the community to ensure that good distance learning methods are implemented with inclusion of girl child education. The community needs to be made aware of the benefits of girl child education. There should be quality distance learning materials which have self paced learning options so that girls who have additional family responsibilities can learn without any pressure and at their own pace. The girls also need to be trained well to access digital learning tools for distance learning.
Moreover, many schools provide vital services apart from academics like social protection and food to children. Psychosocial support and distribution of food should be maintained even when the school is closed and it should be closely supervised. An example in our own country is Kerala taking the decision to supply mid-day meals at home. Moreover, girls should be provided roles in the decision making process when deciding on the tools to be used during distance learning and home education.
These recommendations are not only valid for the least developed countries, they are important all around the world. Women education has always been an area where lots of reforms have been required. Decades after Independence and despite many reforms, in India the literacy rate of females is 65.46% as compared to 80% for males according to the 2011 Census. Lots of awareness as well as proactive practices measures need to be adopted so that the girls from the poorest families return to school once the lockdown period is over.
The measures recommended by UNESCO if implemented seriously, will ensure that history is not repeated, that the sufferings from the past remain in the past and gender equality and girl child education is maintained; or else the progress that we have made globally in two decades will be wasted and we have to restart the fight for gender equality and female education once again.
Image via Flickr, credits UK Department for International Development, used under a Creative Commons license
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