By Natasha Tariq
According to UNESCO, of the 743 million girls around the world out of school and universities due to the Covid-19 pandemic, over 111 million live in the world’s least developed countries, where already high gender disparities in education exist. There are now fears that progress made with regards to gender equality could be reversed as the pandemic threatens to further entrench existing gender gaps in education. Marginalised girls in poor countries are at a higher risk of dropping out of school compared to boys. Evidence from past crises suggests that there will be a disproportionate impact on education of adolescent girls. In order to mitigate this impact, it is vital that education policies designed to deal with the current crisis are gender responsive.
A study published by Malala Fund, based on data from the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, estimates that around 10 million more secondary school-aged girls could be out of school after the crisis, if dropouts increase at the same rate. As families face increased financial instability due to the pandemic, this will impact decisions regarding the education of their children. Evidence suggests that in households where resources are limited, gender norms make families prioritise boys’ education over girls. According to a study published by Plan International on the impact of the Ebola epidemic in Africa, in many cases, girls dropped out of school to support their families financially and to shoulder the burden of housework and care responsibilities. The same situation holds true for girls’ education during conflict; girls in primary school are 2.5 times more likely, and girls in secondary school are almost 90 percent more likely to be out of school, as compared to those living in countries not facing conflict.
As adolescent girls drop out of school, they will have fewer opportunities to reach their full potential in the future. A report published by Council on Foreign Relations highlights that structural barriers like inequity in access to education, concentration in the informal labor market, inequitable burden of unpaid housework and care work lower women’s economic productivity. According to the World Bank, limiting educational opportunities and depriving girls of 12 years of schooling costs countries between $15 trillion to $30 trillion dollars in lost earnings and lifetime productivity.
The gender digital divide
Innovations in science and technology can make gender equality more achievable by providing creative solutions that accelerate the pace of change. For instance, e-learning solutions that reach girls in remote areas can improve access to and availability of education. Many schools and universities around the world have now switched to online teaching in an effort to ensure continued access to education in spite of Covid-19. In developing countries, television and radio are also being used to broadcast lessons to children in remote areas and those without access to the internet. However, girls and women tend to have less access to technology compared to boys and men. Many factors including affordability, lack of education and technology literacy as well as cultural and social obstacles limit girls’ and women’s access to and use of information and communication technologies (ICTs), which is called the gender digital divide. For instance, women and girls make up the majority of more than 3 billion people offline. Many education interventions in response to the pandemic rely on the use of ICTs. Adequate measures to assist girls who are already at a disadvantage are necessary to avoid exacerbating existing inequalities.
During the coronavirus pandemic, policies should ensure that new methods of teaching and remote learning opportunities take into consideration the challenges facing the most marginalised groups. Education has a positive transformative impact on many aspects of a girl’s life, including health. For instance, better educated girls are likely to have fewer children and healthier pregnancies. Limiting girls’ education opportunities not only negatively impacts their personal well-being and economic potential, it also lowers prospective economic growth at the national level. This is why immediate steps need to be taken to control the dropout rate and to ensure that girls return to school following Covid-19.
In order to avoid exacerbating the existing gender gap in education, local education authorities should ensure that education policies designed to deal with school closures are not gender blind. Lessons learned from past crises should also be used as a guide. Women should be represented in decision making and planning activities. Working with local stakeholders can also reveal important insights and information about vulnerable groups such as girls with disabilities and refugees. There should also be a mechanism for receiving feedback from the target population. Television, radio and social media should be used to deliver targeted messages to raise community awareness regarding the importance of girls’ education. Finally, special measures should be taken to support re-enrollment of girls as schools re-open.
The current situation presents challenges as well as opportunities. Due to the global nature of Covid-19, governments and relevant organizations around the world are working on making distance learning more accessible and effective. Using new advancements in research, carefully designed gender-integrated programmes can help to bridge the gender gap in education now and in the future.
Natasha has a degree in Public Policy and interests in education, gender and development.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.
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