Credit: Haseeb Modi
Efforts to counter the spread of COVID-19 have triggered the most desperate global education emergency on record. At the peak of the global lockdowns, 1.6 billion children were affected by school closures, many of whom are projected to never return to the classroom; for those who do, more than half will not receive the required basic numeracy and literacy education.
The scale of the challenge on the horizon is alarming, and the effects will be more precarious for girls, who are at greater risk of dropping out of school permanently. An estimated 20 million more secondary school-aged girls could be out of school after the crisis has passed, and the consequences of this will extend beyond education and learning loss. Schools are instrumental in providing essential services like nutritious food and school feeding programs, which affect both children and community well-being.
What is the Risk for Girls and Young Women?
School closures put girls and young women at high risk for child marriage, early pregnancy, and gender-based violence. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) projects that the pandemic could result in 13 million additional child marriages and 2 million more cases of female genital mutilation between 2020 and 2030. The risk worsens for young women and girls in countries of conflict or humanitarian crises. Before 2020, as many as 39 million girls had their education disrupted due to humanitarian crises, 13 million of whom were out of school entirely.
At a time when the number of people in extreme poverty may increase by up to 100 million, families will be forced to make difficult choices. Attention should be paid to dropouts and opportunity costs that are likely to affect parents' decisions to support education.
However, the challenge isn't insurmountable. There are steps and changes that policymakers, education services providers, donors, businesses, and communities across the public and private sectors can enact to remedy the situation. These recommendations are for everyone in the education ecosystem, from local community leaders to the governments allocating education budgets.
We must be prepared to step up and meet our collective responsibility for securing the right to education for every girl.
1. Centre Communities in Education Recovery and Response
Community-wide approaches are often the backbone for accelerating girls' access to education, supporting retention and challenging harmful gender norms. Public support is the first step to developing locally led solutions and supporting parents and leaders to organise and demand high-quality and safe education for their daughters.
Religious and traditional leaders play critical roles in influencing values, attitudes, behaviours, and actions that affect girls' development and well-being. As voices for advocacy, these leaders work with families to encourage girls' learning and champion health and educational responses that serve the whole community.
For example, the African Union's International Centre for Girls' and Women’s Education in Africa (AU/CIEFFA) is working with traditional and religious leaders to build networks among faith-based organisations and create platforms to share best practices.
2. Strengthen Data Use for Gender-Responsive Educational Outcomes
Many education systems rely on paper-based reporting tools or aggregated data for reporting and analysis. There is a need to upgrade, strengthen, and integrate data systems across all levels of education governance to include digital solutions.
Gender-specific data collection, analysis, and monitoring tools in schools and communities highlight gaps in school attendance and learning outcomes. In turn, this data can help build informed narratives for decision-making on gender-transformative interventions, such as gender-responsive teaching, curriculum planning and teacher professional development, life skills support, parent-teacher partnerships, and communications campaigns. These technical responses require open data cultures, which support education providers to review and collect data and improve data literacy to assess gender-responsiveness.
Digital tools can also assess social-emotional and mental health, special educational needs and disability, and safety. United States Agency for International Development’s Data for Impact (D4I) program strengthens child safeguarding by employing tools that facilitate case management, long term data tracking, and data integration across agencies. These tools can be applied in educational contexts and potentially even link education data to child protection systems.
3. Explore Alternative Pathways for Learning
A robust and coordinated response is needed to ensure students can access distance learning alternatives as part of national responses. An estimated 40 per cent of the poorest countries were unable to support learners at risk during the pandemic. Before the COVID-19 crisis, girls were among the most excluded groups in formal education.
Over the past decade, international development actors have begun to gather a global evidence base to support alternative education pathways. For example, prioritisation of school readiness programs, satellite schools, Girls’ clubs and mentor programs (such as CAMFED’s Learner Guides Program) can support children into the system and provide informal support for those most likely to drop out or fall behind. Digital tools can also offer alternative routes to access learning for girls who are absent from schools.
Compulsory education helps eliminate the digital gender divide early on and equip girls for full participation in labour markets and society later in life. CAMFED’s work in Tanzania is an example of how low-cost digital tools, such as interactive handbooks, can empower children and support student outcomes.
4. Support Gender-Responsive Education Sector Planning and Budgeting
The oncoming education challenge will demand a renewed global commitment between governments, change-makers and donors to bring together domestic and international resources and prioritise gender-responsive planning and budgeting for adequate financing. These efforts should focus on strengthening education ministries' institutional capacities to develop gender-responsive education sector plans which allocate budgets to the most marginalised.
There is a USD 148 billion annual financing gap in low and lower-middle-income countries to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 4, ‘Quality and inclusive education for all’, by 2030. School closures risk increasing this gap by up to a third, and past experiences show that education and gender inequalities tend to be neglected in responses to disease outbreaks.
The evidence is clear; the learning crisis is on track to worsen. The journey to post-COVID educational recovery must begin now.
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