In the middle of this global health crisis, girls from around the world have shared their fears with us. They’re worried their parents will lose their jobs, they’re not sure the shops will stay open to buy food, and they don’t think their health systems will be able to cope with the mounting demand.
These are not normal times. It’s confusing, and hard to comprehend.
When will things go back to normal? Will things go back to normal? Do we want them to go back to normal? For girls who continue to be disadvantaged in every aspect of their lives, normal is not good.
A different world for girls
We know the impact of this crisis will be huge. As society is tested and reshaped, it’s crucial we build a different kind of world for girls.
Right now, the focus is on saving lives. It’s hard to think about the future. At the time of writing there are over a million cases of COVID-19 globally. We’re watching frontline health workers showing up to work every day, risking their own safety to look after other people. (One of my closest friends is doing night shifts at the hospital in a hazmat suit, and he’s one of the lucky ones. Not all services can afford the protection.)
But this virus is also showing us the stark inequalities that exist in our everyday lives. It’s blisteringly obvious how COVID-19 is exacerbating the disadvantages girls and women already face, worsening an already unfair situation.
Crisis will set back girls' and women's rights
Before the crisis, the global backlash on women’s rights was threatening sexual and reproductive health services all over the world. Now, with the additional strain, we’re watching these being further cut back, with an increased risk of teen pregnancies and unsafe abortions.
Everywhere we look we see the burden of care for siblings, children and elderly family members falling to women and girls.
Lockdowns are trapping women at home, with domestic abusers taking advantage of their isolation. Most of us are avoiding the dangers outside, but for so many women and children home is not the safe place it should be.
Everywhere we look we see the burden of care for siblings, children and elderly family members falling to women and girls. Globally, women do three times as much unpaid care work as men. And as families are forced further into poverty, the risk of child marriage and exposure to sexual exploitation, including trafficking, increases too.
School closures will hit girls hardest
Then there are the newer threats. COVID-19 has forced 743 million girls out of school in 188 countries, and with millions spending more time indoors on the internet, there are worrying early signs that online harassment and exploitation is increasing.
All the factors of girls’ identities - their race, ethnicity, sexuality, disabilities – are playing a part in how they experience this crisis differently. Refugees and internally displaced populations are facing distinct challenges. And there is a greater threat in poorer countries where infrastructure is weaker and health systems are more fragile.
The impact on people’s lives is already heart-breaking, and the likelihood is the other side of this is going to be extremely hard for a great number of people.
It is imperative we keep amplifying girls’ voices and strengthening their leadership through this crisis. It is not only a way to stand with them so they can survive this, it’s a way for communities to cope and recover strongly. It’s essential so the slow improvements we’ve seen globally on gender equality do not further slip into reverse.
Looking to the future
As we start to look to the future, which we will, we have to avoid the risk of returning to a status quo that continues to disadvantage girls, and countless other marginalised groups. It’s vital we use our imaginations to create a new world, with new rules, where girls in all their diversity are seen, heard and valued as equals.
Now that we cannot go outside, why do we not start discussing other topics. Such as the role we as girls have during this pandemic?*
We don’t have to have all the answers. We need to make space for girls to speak up, safely, and listen to what they have to say. We need to help amplify their voices, whether that’s at home on lockdown, in public or online. We need to use our power to connect girls with decision-makers, opening doors and pulling up a seat at every virtual decision-making table.
And we need to understand the new challenges girl and youth led organisations face, so we can continue to be their allies. They are already innovating, drastically adapting the way they connect and organise – including shifting their feminist activism online. There is hope here.
Different countries are at different stages of the crisis, and for many the worst is yet to come. But all over the world people are talking about the same threat at the same time. All eyes are on what is happening, and what we need to do about it. In this extraordinary and unique moment, we must decide on a new normal for girls.
Join the movement
The Girls Get Equal campaign champions girls’ voice, power and leadership in the drive for gender equality.
* Quote from a girl in Senegal.