What is the problem with girl child education and why are we concerned?

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused the largest disruption of education in history. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, governments around the world temporarily closed schools and other learning spaces to contain the spread of the virus. Educational disruption has serious consequences. Beyond its impacts on learning, the unprecedented disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic school closures has posed an immediate and long-term threat to gender equality and has already had pernicious gender specific effects in areas such as girls’ education, health, well-being and protection.

This unprecedented disruption to education has already begun to roll back substantial gains made on girls’ education in recent decades, with broader, immediate and longer-term effects on the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, including those related to poverty reduction, health and well-being, inclusive quality education and gender equality. The most marginalised, including girls with disabilities, those in conflict-affected contexts, remote and rural communities and those in the poorest quintile, were the most affected by COVID-related school closures, facing additional constraints on their ability to fulfil their right to education, health and protection, among other rights.

COVID-19 was an emergency. Like elsewhere in the world, African governments were caught by surprise by COVID-19. In the governments’ general and education responses to COVID-19, it appears that speed, rather than equity in access and outcomes, was the priority in bringing relief and other solutions to scale. Initial COVID-19 responses appear to have been developed with little gender analysis and attention to inclusive approaches. Girls were disproportionately more affected by the COVID-19 crisis than their male counterparts especially those from low-income households, remote communities and those from densely populated informal urban settlements. Due to the COVID-induced closure of schools, a high number of girls were unable to continue learning leading to learning loss.

In addition to learning loss, essential health and counselling services were disrupted. The economic downturn forced a majority of girls to engage in transactional sex elevating cases of teenage pregnancies and early marriages. Furthermore, considering that the COVID-19 pandemic is a health crisis, sickness and mortality among parents or other household members also interfered with girls’ education by at least two channels (beyond the trauma of losing a parent, in the case of mortality). First, losing a parent resulted in reduced income and so a greater need for children to work for pay. In the wake of the COVID-19, girls reported selling fruit in the market, and buying and selling scrap metal, among other activities. In some cases, it even meant transactional sex. In many contexts in Africa, it was found that during the COVID-19 crisis, girls became the main income earners in their households. Second, girls became primary health givers for sick members of the families and for younger siblings. All of these responsibilities pulled girls away from school, sometimes permanently in cases where girls became the household breadwinners.

Loss of household income also led to girls marrying young as a means to generate income for the family through their dowry, especially if compounded with unplanned pregnancy. At the height of the COVID-19 crisis, some families preferred to send away their children to communities deemed to be safer from the disease, which in some cases exposed the girls to potential sexual abuse by foster parents or guardians.

Beyond difficulties such as access to distance learning and school dropouts, there are reports of greater mental health difficulties for female students and of significantly more time doing housework for girls than for boys. Across various countries in Africa, girls reported either less confidence  in their computer skills—relevant for distance learning—or less access to the internet.  In terms of dropouts, in our research we found a differential risk to girls and higher dropout rates for girls in the wake of the school closures. Our surveys reflected similar concerns that girls were more adversely affected than boys by school closures.

Finally, other identified impacts of COVID-19 on education were at the macro level. An effect not from school closures directly but from the COVID-19 health and financial crises is that education budgets got crunched even at the national level. In the wake of the COVID-19 induced financial pre-existing disparities between boys and girls were exacerbated. Many countries still have gender gaps in access to secondary education, and budget crunches may have slowed down the expansion of secondary school, limiting opportunities for girls.

Even before COVID-19, Africa was already a long way from gender equality in and through education. While global figures showing gender parity in education are often cited as a great success story for gender equality, these figures mask large regional, national and local disparities.  Sub-Saharan African girls today are the most disadvantaged in terms of access to schooling. Twelve out of 17 countries in the world that have not yet reached gender parity in primary education are located in Sub-Saharan Africa, as are fifteen of the 20 that have not achieved gender parity in lower secondary education.[1]  Child marriage still happens in several countries in Africa, although it is a violation of girls’ right to education, freedom from violence, among other rights.[2] Millions of children in Africa lack basic sanitation services, and basic hygiene services at their school, often putting a sharp end to girls’ education during menstruation.

[1] UNICEF (2020). Gender and education. UNICEF Data (accessed 11th November 2022) https://data.unicef.org/topic/gender/gender-disparities-in-education/

[2] Pew Research Center. 2016. Marriage Laws around the World. Washington, D.C, Pew Research Center.

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