Reversed gains of girlchild education; What is the way forward?

As we continue to celebrate the place of women in this month of International Women’s Day, we recognize the importance of educating women as a strategic development priority. Educated women tend to be more informed about nutrition and health care, have fewer and healthier children, and are more likely to get formal employment and earn higher incomes. This is not a reality especially within Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) where Sustainable Development Goal agenda 5, the achievement of gender equality and empowerment for women and girls, has not largely been achieved. The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) has reported that one in every three adolescent girls from the SSA countries has never been to school. For those girls that enroll in school, only about 25% of that manage to complete.

Girls face barriers caused by cultural norms, practices, and biases that limit access their access to education services. COVID-19, which has led to 89% of the world’s student population being out of school, has exacerbated these challenges. The girl child has largely borne the brunt of the pandemic compared to the boys. According to a survey done by the UNICEF in October 2020,  girls have disproportionately been affected than boys as evidenced by increased girl child school dropouts, early marriages, adolescent pregnancy, and gender-based violence reported cases. The report estimate that about 10 million secondary school-age girls have been put out of school after the initial pandemic crisis. This, therefore, reverses the gains made over the past decades to ensure that all girls have access to quality education. Even as the world transitioned to remote learning, poor and rural girls especially from vulnerable backgrounds, missed out more due to poor educational infrastructure. Even for those girls who managed to access online learning during the school closure, the risk of online sexual exploitation increased. The unstructured time online exposed children to potentially harmful and violent content such as sexualized images and increased the risk of cyberbullying.

During the prolonged closure, the burden of care, which mostly falls on women, was then transferred to school-going girls. As the girls stayed at home, the household work burdens increased, resulting in more time helping at home instead of studying as compared to boys. That encouraged parents, particularly those putting a lower value on girls’ education, to keep their daughters at home even after schools reopen thus increasing dropout rates for girls. The long closure also resulted in girls spending more time with men and boys compared to when they are in school. This, therefore, led to increased cases of engagement in risky sexual behavior and increased sexual violence and exploitation resulting in teen pregnancies. As of today, UNICEF statistics indicate that about one million girls in SSA have not gone back to school due to teen pregnancy during the COVID-19 closure On the same note, with the pandemic hitting the poorest families harder, the economic impact on such families left the adolescent girls at higher risk of child marriage and child labor. Nevertheless, the increased psychosocial stress and mental health issues caused by the economic stress on the families and loss of the school support system largely affected their ability of girls to learn even after they return to school.

Generally, the prevailing situation has shattered lives and aspirations and limited opportunities for girls to achieve their potential. This situation calls for a sense of urgency to mitigate or reverse the learning losses and get girls back to school. This is because; we cannot realize developmental promises and eradicate poverty in the region unless we address the reversed gains of gender equality. Providing equal opportunities for school-going girls and boys should be at the center of our COVID-19 recovery efforts. This will provide both the girls and the boys an equal power to shape their own lives, for future contribution to their families, communities, and countries. An education system, which equally empowers girls and boys and promotes their life skills development, helps to close future skills gaps that perpetuate pay gaps, and build prosperity for the entire country.

As the unprecedented education crisis persists, there is a window of opportunity to re-imagine a positive drive towards promoting girl child education. Continental action is needed to galvanize all stakeholders working to safeguard girls’ right to education and to spur collaboration and the sharing of best practices that promote the continuity of girls’ education in SSA post-covid. As the custodian to every child’s right to education, the government has a key role need to implement targeted gendered approach interventions. Such an approach ensures all girls, especially the poor and the marginalized, return to school. The program should address the stigma around pregnant school-going girls to provide a safe environment where they can make a re-entry to schools. Catch-up courses and accelerated learning should be provided to girls who return to school later from maternity leave. Besides, gender-disaggregated data should be collected to check progress on re-enrolment and attendance for continued targeted intervention. The data is useful in revealing the girls who are at a high risk of dropping out and such, provide extra support to keep them in school.

Similarly, the government should increase public spending in the education sector. Increased public spending on education reduces the cost of schooling and improves access to girl child learning. Targeted support may also be needed to overcome constraints specific to girls, especially adolescent girls. As such, the government should offer gender-sensitive budget allocations, which ensures menstrual hygiene management, a common factor that keeps girls out of school.  Cash transfers to families of adolescent girls can afford to keep their daughters, as such, families will not be pressed to marry off the girls at young ages.

Through church communications and awareness-raising campaigns, we need to secure the buy-in of religious and community leaders fraternity, on the benefits of educating a girl child. Moreover, enlightening them against women violence against women and early marriages would support the effort of gender equality in learning. This should be coupled with teaching girls to recognize themselves as equals and resist discrimination.

by Dr. Judith Nguli

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