Since the outbreak of COVID-19 over a year ago, more than 1.53 billion children are out of school – that is more than during World War II! This is a tragedy not only impacting children themselves, but our entire societies.
Due to the pandemic, it is especially girls who are at great risk of never going back to school once the return to the physical classroom is possible. According to UNESCO, nearly 743 million girls and young women were left behind when it comes to their education, and 111 million of these are girls living in lower-income countries, where access to education was limited even before the COVID-19 crisis.
Girls left out of the classroom are forced to take on more household chores or to marry early, setting their lives onto a completely different path and adding serious obstacles to their independence. School closures have also increased the risk of physical and sexual abuse, resulting in the so-called “shadow pandemic” of gender-based violence. It is beyond a doubt that for all children, especially for girls and young women, access to quality and safe education is the key to gaining a more equal standing in society and being able to fully use their incredible potential.
One might think that many girls will be able to continue their education once the school doors reopen. This is true. What is also true is that many others will never return to class. The fact remains that for both of these groups, COVID-19 is unravelling decades of progress for girls’ equality – on many issues, but particularly on access to quality and inclusive education, as defined in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4. As a reminder, the international community aims to achieve the SDGs by 2030. A lot remains to be done to fulfil this promise, especially with the setbacks caused by COVID-19.
Plan International spoke with girls and young women from India, Ghana and Ethiopia via an online consultation that aimed to hear from them directly about their dreams, concerns and what they thought the EU could do to support them and amplify their voices. One topic that kept coming up: education. Around 31% of respondents indicated that their education has been affected by the coronavirus outbreak. Their schools were closed, their exams and graduation were delayed and they had difficulties accessing online education. Their message was simple: the EU must act and ensure that all girls can go back to school.
Indicatively, a young woman from India said that the COVID-19 outbreak has had a big impact on her studies. According to the her, people are facing problems with accessing online classes. With no proper internet connection in rural areas she concludes that “making internet [accessible] can help me and my community”.
But it is not all doom and gloom. There are concrete steps we can take to stop this setback and mitigate the impacts of the pandemic. Part of the answer lies in the GAP III: in 2020, the EU adopted its Action Plan on Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment in External Action 2021–2025 (GAP III). With its implementation, the EU has the chance to prioritise girls’ and women’s education.
EU institutions need to continue emphasising on the right of safe and quality education in a long-term and consistent manner. The Directorate-General for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (DG ECHO) is committed to spending 10% of its budget on education. The Directorate-General for International Partnerships (DG INTPA) has also announced its political commitment to follow the same example. Going through with this will have an immeasurable positive impact on the lives of millions of children. Nevertheless, for this focus on education to be effective, it needs to ensure a gender-sensitive approach that recognises and addresses the specific challenges girls have been facing due to the pandemic.
Inclusive, safe and quality education is an integral part of human development and the path to a better life for many children, especially girls. The return to school, once COVID-19 is under control, provides a unique opportunity to ensure that the 130 million girls who were already out of school before the pandemic are included in all school reopening plans. We must also put plans in place for future crises and disruptions to education, in order to ensure continuity of learning and support for all children, especially the most marginalised.
The pandemic is teaching us many lessons for every aspect of our lives. The question is, will we listen and act?
Girls don’t just want us to build back after COVID-19. They want us to build better.