Pushing for equality for girls in the age of COVID-19

1 APRIL 2020

As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds, Plan International CEO Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen reflects on the effects on girls across the globe and what must be done to mitigate them.

What if COVID-19 stole all your life opportunities forever and not just for 3-6 months? This is a real risk for millions of girls and young women across the world.

COVID-19 may not discriminate, but society does. The age and gender implications of a global pandemic are stark. Girls and the most vulnerable children and youth miss out on vital services when schools are closed, from school meals to social protection. While children’s health appears to be less affected by COVID-19, the outbreak will deeply affect the world in which they develop and grow.

The economic fallout will heavily impact girls and women in the most deprived communities

If your world and personal power are already limited, being disrupted by COVID-19 adds further risk and peril. The economic fallout will heavily impact girls and women in the most deprived communities, with a sharp rise in the burden of unpaid domestic care work and millions driven into child marriage, trafficking and survival sex by poverty and recession.

Abuse and complications of teen pregnancy will add to the health crisis caused by the virus. And you don’t bounce back from such setbacks quickly, if ever.

Discrimination is universal

The discrimination is universal. In the UK, of the 3 million people currently being paid low wages to carry out high-risk jobs related to COVID-19, 98% are women. In Hubei Province in China, where the outbreak began, activists recorded a 200% rise in domestic violence, with over 90% of cases linked to social isolation measures. Around 21% more men than women have access to the internet globally, rising to 52% in the world’s least developed countries. This gender disparity becomes even more damaging when key functions of society are moved online due to social distancing.

It doesn’t stop there. As Greta Thunberg reminded us this week, “The climate crisis will not go away” and we are already seeing the compounding effects of COVID-19 and climate change. In Zimbabwe, epicenter of a Southern African food crisis partially caused by drought, lockdown measures mean communities despair that, “We’ll die of hunger first”. In refugee and conflict settings where health systems are weak, there are enormous obstacles to disease prevention and treatment, making young people particularly vulnerable. 

This may be cause for despair, but for organisations like Plan International it is a call to action. As the restrictions on our daily lives and our operations grow, across the development and humanitarian sectors we need to be flexible and innovative to keep delivering our vital work.

At Plan International, we will take all the steps we can to keep staff, supporters and those we serve safe while continuing to work with communities, governments and partners to disseminate key information and promote access to hygiene and medical facilities.

Our priority in humanitarian response is always to save and protect the lives of all children and young people, whilst always bringing girls’ needs to the fore.

Risk that resources will shrink as needs escalate

As key donor countries face economic shocks resulting from the pandemic, there is a risk that humanitarian resources will shrink just as need escalates. We must protect and intensify our efforts in humanitarian contexts and the call by the UN Secretary General for a global ceasefire must be heeded.

Women make up 70% of the global health workforce.

Protections against gender-based, sexual and intimate partner violence; forced marriage and prostitution; trafficking and child labour must be emphasised in all policies related to the crisis. Girls’ and women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights must be prioritised and supplies for proper menstrual hygiene management, including for women health workers, who make up 70% of the global health workforce, must be treated as essential.

Improving access to technology for girls and women will be even more important as key social functions are driven online. The online landscape can provide many opportunities for girls “I am selling products online that I organise myself, so I can help my mum during the pandemic.” one young woman in Dakar, Senegal told us.

Now is the time to make sure girls and women are digitally included, empowered and protected from online violence and abuse.

We must listen to girls as crisis unfolds

Finally, girls must have a seat at the decision-making table. As the longer-term impacts of the crisis unfold, we must work closely with girls and women to amplify their voices and ensure that they are an active part of the process of rebuilding.

With crises come opportunities to renew, rebuild and reimagine. Over the coming months, I will explore some of the issues touched upon in this article in more depth as the full impacts of the crisis become more apparent. I will collaborate with my peers in the sector and with girls and young women around the world to highlight how COVID-19 will impact their lives and how we must respond.

Through the Plan International Girls Out Loud online platform, one girl in Senegal asks, “Now that we cannot go outside, why don’t we start discussing other topics, such as the role we have as girls?”

As we enter a challenging period, my hope is that we can channel the positive energy of girls around the world who still look hopefully to a future in which they are free and have equal power to realise their full ambitions.