On 21 April 2020, the World Food Programme warned that, unless swift action is taken, some 265 million people worldwide, double the numbers from the previous year, face acute food shortages. This, in a world where some 144 million children under 5 years are already malnourished, 47 million of them acutely so.
On top of long-running poverty and malnutrition, in 2019, a record 51 million people are estimated to have been driven from their homes by conflict and disasters, just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. These multiple crises combine with lethal consequences and, in families already struggling to survive, it is girls and young women who are the hardest hit.
Bearing the brunt of COVID-19
Girls and women across the world work on family farms and earn money with jobs in food preparation, beauty salons and local trading which become impossible with social distancing in place. This lack of an income means they are unable to buy basic necessities. When families run dramatically short of food adolescent girls are often sexually exploited and forced into risky behaviour to help put food on the table.
Some 743 million girls are now out of school and even when schools reopen, many girls and young women may find it hard to return. Teenage pregnancies often increase in times of crisis and for these young women a return to education is even less likely.
The suspension of school lunch programmes, affecting 370 million children worldwide, has increased hunger for many families.
Girls and women are most likely to suffer abuse and violence at home when the protective umbrellas of education and care systems are removed. All over the world reports of domestic violence are on the rise.
In early childhood, boys and girls are equally likely to be malnourished but, as they approach adolescence, the impact of malnutrition is more severe for girls and young women who are far more likely to suffer from anaemia. This can have deadly consequences, especially in pregnancy.
In a public health crisis such as COVID-19, girls and women bear the added burdens of domestic work and care, including looking after sick family members which in turn puts their own health at greater risk. Additionally, older girls may go hungry, as younger siblings eat first.