By Katie Miekle
In early September, Malawian President Lazarus Chakwera announced that following a five-month closure, schools across the country would begin to reopen again. Much like governments all over the world, Malawi was forced to close schools to halt the spread of Covid-19. Evidence is beginning to reveal the effects that these school closures have had on children, and the possible longer-term effects that they have had on gender equality in the developing world.
School not only provides an opportunity to learn and socialise, but it offers a safe space with food, hygiene services, health support and an escape from violence. For many children across the world, the recent school closures caused by the Covid-19 pandemic have majorly disrupted their education, as well as their general health and wellbeing. As schools around the world begin to open again, it is crucial to acknowledge and address the impact that school closures have had on the most vulnerable children. As evidenced by previous crises, young girls especially feel the effects of school closures. UNESCO estimated that globally, 23.8 million children, adolescents and youth from pre-primary to tertiary may drop out or not have access to school next year due to the pandemic’s economic impact alone, including 11.2 million girls and young women. Others place this estimate higher, at around 20 million girls from low and low-middle income countries not returning to school due to Covid-19 (UNESCO 2020: 4).
School closures are most likely to negatively impact young girls in the developing world due to a number of reasons. Firstly, closures are likely to exacerbate the pre-existing attainment gap. Many girls have limited resources and opportunities to continue education at home meaning that for many, remote learning is near impossible. When researching the impact of school closures in Afghanistan, Human Rights Watch (2020) identified that girls who were internally displaced, living in poverty, rural and conflict-affected areas or affected by disabilities were least likely to be able to continue learning at home.
Socio-economic pressures are also a huge part of the reason for girls not returning to school. In comparison to their male counterparts, young girls are disproportionately responsible for unpaid household work in many homes throughout the world. Prior to Covid-19, girls aged between five and fourteen already spent 40% more time on household chores than boys (UNICEF 2016). Due to recent school closures its highly likely that young girl’s household burdens have increased, leaving them less time to study remotely. Recent research conducted by the UN has found that in Afghanistan, 83% of women saw an increase in unpaid care work and 80% in unpaid domestic work following the Covid-19 outbreak (cited in HRW 2020). Not only does this leave girls with less time to study but, in the worst-case scenario, parents may be encouraged to keep their daughters at home even after schools reopen.
In addition to greater socio-economic burdens, school closures increase the risk of gender-based violence, child marriage and early pregnancies for girls all around the world. Malawi already has one of the highest rates of early marriage and teenage pregnancy in the world, with the government estimating that half of all girls marry before they’re eighteen (Masina 2020). In line with evidence from previous crises, this trend is predicted to increase due to the Covid-19 pandemic. During the Ebola epidemic across Western Africa, school closures led to a dramatic increase in teenage pregnancies. One study by the UN Development Program estimated that child pregnancies increased by 65% due to the socio-economic conditions caused by Ebola (Werber 2015). In Malawi, education officials have estimated that over 7,000 girls have fallen pregnant since the recent school closures in March (Akhalbey 2020).
The closure of schools removes a safe space for millions of girls and places additional pressures onto parents. For many girls, once they fall pregnant, they are unable to return to education due to stigma, societal pressures, economic concerns and many other reasons. It is clear to see that Covid-19 induced school closures are contributing to a growing gender gap and possibly reversing any substantial progress that has been made within education.
So, what can be done?
Organisations in Malawi are already addressing the issues mentioned above. The Centre for Alternatives for Victimised Women and Children have been encouraging youths to access sexual reproductive health services in an attempt to increase awareness. Additionally, they have been working with local women’s groups to educate parents and children on how to leave marriages and support young girls in returning to education (Masina 2020).
There are still many steps that can be taken to address this growing gender gap within education. These can be enacted on numerous levels. UNESCO, in partnership with Plan International, the Malala Fund, the UN Girl’s Education Initiative and UNICEF have created a robust guide for re-opening schools in a way which addresses the needs of girls. They highlight the need to collect and use gender-disaggregated data so that policies can be accurately shaped. A robust system must be in place to record and report absenteeism so that any potential issues can be flagged up early. In terms of increasing accessibility, it is important to ensure that the distance learning solutions work for all, whether that means offering free internet data packages for girls, using TV and Radio learning, or even paper-based materials for remote areas.
A key aspect which can be enacted by all is increasing the conversation and awareness around this particular issue. The exclusion of girls from school, and the growing gender education gap as a result of Covid-19 is an issue which must not be forgotten about.
Our aim is to provide the children of Malawi access to safe, hygienic education facilities, regardless of gender. We’re continuing our work towards this goal wherever possible, and our progress depends on funding and support.
Learn more about how you can help us by donating to Malawi, or discover fundraising options, by simply getting in touch with our team. We can also provide helpful resources on becoming a Malawi Charity Corporate Partner or a Charity School Partner, if your organisation is interested in helping us to sustain our vital work.
Akhalbey, F., 2020. Over 7000 Malawian Teens – As Young As 10 And 14 – Pregnant Since COVID-19 School Closure – Face2face Africa. [online] Face2Face Africa. Available at: https://face2faceafrica.com/article/over-7000-malawian-teens-as-young-as-10-and-14-pregnant-since-covid-19-school-closure1 [Accessed 13 November 2020].
Burzynska, K. and Contreras, G., 2020. Gendered effects of school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Lancet, 395(10242), p.1968.
Human Rights Watch. 2020. Gender Alert On Covid-19 Afghanistan. [online] Available at: https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/10/14/gender-alert-covid-19-afghanistan [Accessed 13 November 2020].
Masina, L., 2020. Malawi Sees Spike In Teen Pregnancies, Early Marriage During COVID Lockdown. [online] Voice of America. Available at: https://www.voanews.com/africa/malawi-sees-spike-teen-pregnancies-early-marriage-during-covid-lockdown [Accessed 13 November 2020].
Oxfam, 2015. Ebola Impact Revealed: An Assessment Of The Differing Impact Of The Outbreak On Women And Men In Liberia. [online] pp.32-36. Available at: https://oxfamilibrary.openrepository.com/bitstream/handle/10546/581371/rr-ebola-impact-women-men-liberia-010715-en.pdf;jsessionid=A612FD1CDAFB23D4340A12D1ACB235AB?sequence=1 [Accessed 13 November 2020].
UNESCO, 2020. Bringing Back Equal: Girls Back To School Guide. [online] UNESCO. Available at: https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000374094/PDF/374094eng.pdf.multi [Accessed 13 November 2020].
Unicef.org. 2016. Girls Spend 160 Million More Hours Than Boys Doing Household Chores Everyday. [online] Available at: https://www.unicef.org/press-releases/girls-spend-160-million-more-hours-boys-doing-household-chores-everyday [Accessed 13 November 2020].
Werber, C., 2015. How Ebola Led To More Teenage Pregnancy In West Africa. [online] Quartz Africa. Available at: https://qz.com/africa/543354/how-ebola-led-to-more-teenage-pregnancy-in-west-africa [Accessed 13 November 2020].