Cyclical inaccessibility: COVID-19’s impact on girls’ education

By - Asiya Jawed / Team Story

Girls’ education has been neglected all around the world, and especially in developing countries by governments, schools, and households. About 132 million girls were out of school before the coronavirus outbreak. Due to COVID-19 around 1.5 billion students all around the world have had their education disrupted – out of these students 743 million are girls. Not only is it difficult for girls to receive high quality education through distance learning means during this time – the probability of girls returning to school in the future is already decreasing. But these are not the only challenges faced by girls, schools across the world provide girls with the support system they need to manage their health & well-being. School closures in this pandemic coupled with the economic crisis has also meant a drastic increase in domestic violence faced by women and girls, which is now described as the ‘second pandemic’. 

COVID-19 is leading to a huge, spiralling impact on girls’ education and their overall lives; increased domestic responsibilities, early marriages, and gender based violence are a product of girls not being able to access education. At IEI Pakistan, we are continuously educating ourselves on how COVID-19 is impacting girls’ education and actively trying to work on solutions that can break this cycle of inaccessibility.

In Pakistan, where girls’ education is still treated like a luxury as opposed to a basic right – the economic downturn is directly affecting girls’ access to education in low income households. It is less likely for parents to invest in girls’ education in these unprecedented times as compared to boys’. Girls are expected to take up domestic responsibilities because they are ‘sitting at home’ instead of giving them the opportunity to focus on their own learning & growth. With focus shifted towards household chores, many girls are missing out on the remote learning opportunities provided via TV, radio and internet. Evidence from our students also speaks the same story – One of our students from the remote northern valley of Misgar, recently shared a few pages of her daily journal, reading them made it evident that in this period of school closures, her days are heavily taken up by “helping her mother, cleaning the house, working in the field and cooking”

The burden of household chores coupled with the gap in learning in the upcoming months will create monumental changes in girls’ education levels. Confidence, self-esteem, and the quality of social interaction might shift as girls are isolated at home and told to focus on household responsibilities. When schools reopen, every child will struggle to re-adjust to the school life but having faced months of disengagement from learning, girls that return might not be able to interact and engage or catch up to the learning pace like boys. 

Many parents living in developing countries cannot afford to send their daughters to school. It has taken us years and years of interventions to spread awareness on the importance of girls’ education, this pandemic sets us back. In this current economic crisis, parents in low income households struggle to make ends meet, leading to panic and confusion about what the future of their children will be like. This panic and financial crunch has led to an increase in early marriages. Early marriage is likely to confuse, disempower, and weaken girls’ ambitions and drive. After getting married, girls have added household responsibilities and are more likely to get pregnant. The number of child marriages after the coronavirus outbreak has exponentially increased, and it is difficult to say that these girls will ever be able to get back to schools since they are forced to take over other responsibilities.

COVID-19 has forced school closures in more than 190 countries which will act as a potential factor for increased drop-out rates, disproportionately affect adolescent girls, and further entrench gender gaps in education. To help our students stay connected to learning we introduced daily journaling, arts and crafts, and video making during the lockdown. The percentage of girls that attempted these projects is way higher than the number of boys. Based on feedback we received, these activities provided a breather for the female students. Aleezah, a grade 9 student from Misgar Valley shared “we were able to focus on something other than household chores for a little while for a change”.

“In four years of our work in the remote northern valleys, we have seen first hand the eagerness, interest and passion shown by girls towards education. As a suppressed segment of the society they have a desire to prove themselves, to achieve and to make their mark in the society & the world.”

We have been in touch with the girls in our areas of work through phone calls in the last two months. In every conversation we try to lift their spirits and give them the hope they are so eagerly looking for.  We have also engaged Mother’s committees we have established over the last years, to help mothers in the valleys understand the importance of allowing their daughters to benefit from whatever learning opportunities are available at this time be it TV or Radio. 

Currently, we are working, in partnership with Rising Academies, to prepare material to reach students facing the digital divide in some of the hardest to reach regions of Pakistan. This learning material includes fruitful, empowering, gender-inclusive content. Throughout the content we have consciously kept female voice overs to encourage girls to listen in, gender related pronouns are also directed towards females in order to help young girls create connections with the learning material.Health messages are incorporated in every lesson, which girls can make use of since their health and safety is ignored and they are more prone to infections especially in low income areas and rural communities. Our mindfulness exercises will help girls stay grounded and focused in their learning amidst the chaos and never ending responsibilities that they have to take over. Lastly, our storytelling sessions which are always narrated by a female teacher, include brave and inspirational stories of girls taking on new adventures and performing problem solving activities which will help them cope with the domestic burden forced upon them.

IEI Pakistan is also formulating a teacher support program to train teachers on how to interact with students as we transition towards the ‘new normal’. One component of this Teacher Support Program is focused on re-integration of students who do not return to school – this particular component focuses on the steps that teachers can take to reach out to households who do not send their daughters back to schools.  Another important component for teachers that we hope will greatly help girls returning to the classroom, is our module on helping teachers prepare for revision & remedial learning once schools resume. Girls who have become disengaged with learning, will require remedial support to catch back up to the pace of the classroom and prepared teachers can make all the difference. 

This pandemic has brought to light once more the disparities faced by girls’ across the world. We believe this creates an opportunity for us to transform education and reimagine the way students learn so that when girls return to school they are welcomed to a more gender-responsive and inclusive setting. That education and it’s infrastructures rise up to provide the support girls’ need – to be safe, to grow and learn.

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