What’s happening to girls’ education during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Kavita sits in her home in Rajasthan, India. Kavita was married at 17 along with her older sister. She is not yet living with her husband’s family as she wants to complete her education first. Girls Not Brides/Allison Joyce

Lockdowns and school closures implemented during the pandemic have already caused 743 million girls to miss out on their educations, and 10 million more secondary school-aged girls are predicted to be out of school before it is over. But what’s the story behind these statistics? How are girls affected and how can we ensure that years of progress towards ending child marriage are not lost?

Girls Not Brides member organisations – who are often the first to identify and respond to girls’ needs – have some invaluable insights into the impacts of the pandemic and how it is affecting girls around the world. They also have some innovative ideas about how to put girls at the centre of the response. This is what they have to say.

The challenges

  • Girls are missing out on education because they can’t access online and distance learning. Member organisations are aware that only 12% of households in the poorest countries have internet access at home, and access to mobile internet is 26% lower for women and girls than for their male peers. On top of this, girls are the first to be pulled out of school, put to work and care for younger siblings when families face economic hardship. As a result, member organisations are concerned that girls don’t have time for school work and may not return once schools reopen.
  • Girls face a higher risk of violence and harmful practices. With schools closed, member organisations report increased sexual and gender-based violence, early pregnancies, unsafe abortions and child marriages. This comes just as support services – including sexual and reproductive health and child protection programmes – are reduced or under strain, limiting girls’ ability to report what is happening to them. Girls facing these experiences are less likely to return to schools once they reopen.
  • Girls are harder to reach when schools are closed. Restrictions on travel and strict curfews mean that many member organisations are now physically unable to reach the girls and communities that they support, especially those in rural areas. Programmes such as girls clubs and support networks have been stopped, meaning girls can’t seek support or access the services they need.

The response

  • Helping girls continue their education. Member organisations that are able have shifted towards online education, with some even offering girls data support so that they can continue learning and revise for exams. Offline support includes the provision of USB keys, radios and printed resources for girls to access lessons at home. For example, the Africa Girls Empowerment Network in Nigeria has launched a STEM Girls online talk show to empower girls and advance gender equality in education. Action Chrétienne pour le Développement Intégral de l’Enfance et de la Jeune Fille (ACDIEF) in Togo has begun a mentoring system to support girls.

  • Offering emergency support. Our membership has provided girls and their families with food, menstrual hygiene products and other emergency items to alleviate the immediate effects of the crisis. For example, the Centre de Solidarité des Jeunes pour la Formation et le Développement (CSJEFOD) in Chad trained girls to deliver a health awareness programme using social media, with the participation of thousands of girls. The Society for Improvement of Rural People (SIRP) in Nigeria trained girls to prepare reusable sanitary pads, noting that menstrual poverty accounts for more than 60% of school drop-outs in the country.

  • Preventing harmful practices. Those that are able have sought to raise awareness of child protection through diverse media, including print, radio, television, social media, podcasts and direct community outreach such as loudspeakers. They have also used online alternatives, such as the Girls Out Loud platform, Bluetooth mobile-to-mobile messaging, WhatsApp, Zoom and government helplines to help girls report abuse, get counselling and share their stories. Despite the challenges, many have continued to run girls’ clubs and support circles, and have community champions to refer girls at risk to support services. For example, SIRP in Nigeria set up and virtually trained its End Child Marriage Brigade to identify any girl under 18 at risk of child marriage. Muslim Family Counselling Services in Ghana shared information on harmful traditional practices through mobile van services.
  • Planning for the future. Some member organisations have carried out assessments to understand the impacts of COVID-19 on girls. They are developing follow-up plans with families to ensure girls return to schools once lockdowns are lifted, and launching awareness campaigns that encourage families to continue supporting education. For example, the Youth Anti-FGM Network in Kenya used constant online feedback mechanisms to help identify emerging challenges and address FGM and child marriage in new ways.

Our mission to end child marriage – and our work as a global partnership – has never been more important. Girls Not Brides member organisations will work to ensure that girls are able to continue learning and return to school. For more information and resources related to COVID-19 and child marriage, see our brief and visit our COVID-19 hub.