EDUCATION AND GENDER
IN THE TIME OF COVID-19
COVID-19 has had devastating impact on young women’s education. 50% of the world’s enrolled students have still not returned to school, and young women and girls are at risk of early marriage and pregnancy. Massive investments in education – and its funding – is urgently needed. Let’s cancel the debts to free up resources!
BY MOHAMMAD HANIF AND GUDRUN GADEGAARD PEDERSEN
One of the major disruptions in young lives all over the planet under COVID-19 has been the lockdown of education.
According to UNESCO, when the COVID-19 lockdown was at its peak from end March to end April 2020, more than 1.5 billion students – up to 90 % of the total number of enrolled learners – were at home as a result of school closures. As of mid September 2020, almost 50% of the world’s students – a total of stunning 873 million children and youth – have still not returned to school. 52 country-wide school closures are effective, and even more countries still impose local or partial lockdowns1.
The continuation of school lockdowns will eventually lead to millions of school drop-outs. UNESCO estimates that about 24 million learners, from pre-primary to university level, are at risk of not returning to school at all following COVID-19. Almost half of them are found in South and West Asia (5.9 million) and sub-Saharan Africa (5.3 million)2.The COVID-19 crisis risk being a major set-back to progress made during the last two decades where the number of girls out of school worldwide dropped by 79 million between 1998 and 20183.
Lessons from the Ebola crisis lockdown
If we want to know what may happen to young women’s education in the aftermath of COVID-19, we can look to the Ebola crisis. In the summer of 2014, all schools, colleges, and other places of learning closed in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, and only began to reopen in February 2015. An estimated 5 million children were out of school in the three countries, but they didn’t just go easily back to school again. Research made by PLAN International found that there were substantial barriers to returning to school. Parents of school children and youth in higher education were no longer able to afford school fees and other costs. Lack of materials, early pregnancy and an unwillingness to return to education in adolescents who had started earning money were also cited as barriers4.
According to the PLAN study, children and adults, especially in Sierra Leone, said that teenage pregnancy has increased greatly because of Ebola. They linked this to girls no longer being at school and their need to seek a provider when parents have insufficient food and money. Early and forced marriages increased, as well transactional sex to cover basic needs and sexual abuse5. This was also documented by UNDP research in Sierra Leone, where researchers found that adolescent pregnancy increased by up to 65% in some communities6.
Consequences in Bangladesh
In Bangladesh, young women were already before the COVID-19 crisis challenged when it comes to early marriages. In 2019, 45% of women and girls under 18 were married7 . Early marriage has devastating impacts on adolescent girls’ education. In South Asia, girls aged 15 to 19 are over four times as likely to be neither in education, employment nor training than boys at the same age8.
"I know some girls who are getting married now because the families are not interested in the continuous expenses’, says Youth inspirator Mohammad Hanif, from Dhaka, Bangladesh. ‘They are in high school, but they don’t know when the school will re-open. And their families are going through a very hard time. When a family is having a hard time, the first thing that comes to their mind is that the girls should get married."
Hanif fears that the lockdown of schools and colleges will lead to a backlash of gender equality: "A large number of the students will go out of school, especially the women and girls, and especially in the rural areas" and he goes on to explaining the reasons behind: "People are getting poorer due to the crisis. They are living very poor lives. So, when you have to minimize the costs, what will you do? You cannot minimize your food or basic needs. So, you minimize the costs you spend on your girls. In the rural areas, people think that girls’ education is not an investment, it is spending, because girls will get married and not earn money for the family."
Young women in high schools are especially at risk right now, Hanif explains: "Most of the girls in the rural areas of Bangladesh get married after high school. Under lockdown, all the schools have been closed, so what happens in most cases is that the families are stopping the education and arrange marriage for the girls. They will not be able to finish high school nor continue their education".
How can we ensure quality education for all under COVID-19?
Fast and acute action is needed, in Bangladesh and other developing countries where the education system is already devastatingly under-resourced and does not have the capacity to rapidly adapt to and continue functioning during emergencies.
ActionAid has called to ensure free, quality, public education that is accessible to all children by adopting appropriate distance learning practices9. Education and materials in all levels must be free to ensure the poorest families’ ability and incentive to maintain girls and young women in school. In contexts such as rural Bangladesh where digital or televised learning options are less accessible, low-tech or no-tech options should be considered, such as sending reading and writing materials home and using radio broadcasts to reach the poorest or most marginalized. To not deter girls, who often disproportionately shoulder the burden of care, schedules and learning structures must be flexible and allow self-paced learning. Safe and flexible learning approaches such as these can also facilitate the return to school of pregnant girls and young mothers who often face stigma and discriminatory school re-entry laws that prevent them from accessing education.
This will not happen without funding. Governments must ensure that education has space within the government’s emergency planning and that funds are allocated for continuity of learning during pandemics such as the COVID-19.
At the same time, full funding of local women’s organizations and networks working on the frontline of the crisis should be urgently ensured, as well as their access to influence and participate in the COVID-19 response planning, and their continuous work to empower young women, secure women-friendly spaces, and young women’s jobs and livelihoods.
But there is also an urgent need to address the structural causes: Education in Bangladesh is at risk of further cut downs if lenders such as the World Bank and China, Japan and India insist on forcing Bangladesh to continue debt payments. New research from ActionAid shows that countries spending more than 12% of their budgets on debt-servicing are invariably forced to cut spending on public services. Bangladesh is one of them. The country’s debt servicing currently runs at 29% of government revenues – that is 86% of the health and education budgets combined.
Therefore, the World Bank and other lenders should cancel all debt servicing throughout 2020 and 2021, allowing countries to free up resources to respond to the pandemic. If not, we risk widening the gender gap and leaving a generation of young women behind.
MOHAMMAD HANIF is from Bangladesh and graduated in fine arts and educational leadership. Hanif is working as an inspirator under the A4I project (action for Impact) in ActionAid Bangladesh on access to quality youth and gender-responsive public services. He was previously an Activista volunteer since 2011, and currently supporting two local A4I partners in Dhaka and Bagerhat.
GUDRUN GADEGAARD PEDERSEN is a Youth Data Analist and part of the Youth Data and Policy team of ActionAid Denmark to document the impact on youth from the Covid-19 crisis.