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Education in the Time of COVID-19 #045 – Unterhalter

By CEID Blogger, on 10 February 2021

Covid-19’s impact on girls’ access to education

By Elaine Unterhalter

Over the past decades, girls’ education has been claimed as a universal solution to every problem: population growth, climate crisis, ending conflict or economic growth. It is said If you educate a girl, you educate the nation or the planet. Then Covid-19 happened.

Scouring the internet, I cannot find girls’ education being promoted as an education policy variant of a vaccine. Many prescriptions of education visions or immediate programmes, such as  Save our Future, do not mention girls’ education. The universal heroine of the educated girl has  been transformed into a poignant image of suffering through lack of education, subject to violence, hunger, early marriage and limited prospects for future learning. But the cause of that suffering is not simply that schools have been closed to protect populations from the virus. A response needs to consider causes of the problems associated with that suffering and address these as part of work on girls’ education. Researchers  highlight the staggering intersecting inequalities in local, national and global societies that produce the suffering associated with girls out of school. Failures to address these inequalities adequately and connectedly were evident before and during the pandemic. If we want to address Covid-19’s impact on girls access to education, we must stop thinking in silos. We must connect girls’ education with a range of other areas of political, economic, health and social inequality, and focus on the social policies, politics, practice and research for change.

The gender inequalities which limited girls’ access to school already before Covid-19 were a feature of the failures to provide universal, free quality education. Worldwide 130 million girls were out of school before the pandemic. Education statistics for a large number of countries on enrolment, attainment or progression show that for every grade beyond primary school, large proportions of poor girls have disappeared. Knowledge of poor quality education, which is not free, will make any return to school and good learning experience harder for the poorest girls, in the poorest districts and poorest countries. Excellent free education provision is needed, including support for the many hidden costs associated with education (such as uniforms, lunch, and learning materials), together with universal  good quality social protection packages and good preventative health care programmes. The World Bank estimates that 100 million people will be driven into extreme poverty by the pandemic and some accounts, such as estimates from the UN University project 1 billion people will remain in extreme poverty for years to come. Under these conditions for poor families to send and keep a girl at school is risky. From about 10 years of age, a girl is able to look after young children on her own, while adult women in a household go to work. Without social protection packages, excellent early childhood provision, and without dedicated investment in teachers, administration, infrastructure and learning materials contributing to good quality education, poor families will be forced to make tragic choices, often not supporting girls’ access to school, and instead relying on her contribution to a household’s survival. We have to overcome placing anyone in such a position.  The social and economic rights of girls are guaranteed in the Constitutions of most countries and the enshrined in frameworks political leaders have adopted. These need to be given substance in thinking about the present and the future, Education is an investment for states, not an expenditure. It needs to be seen as part of a package of reforms. A focus on education reform, however necessary, however, does not  stand alone and needs to be connected with substantive social protection and improvements in addressing the social determinants of heath.  A range of alliances are needed that work together to advance social and economic rights. Girls’ education is not a stand-alone solution.

We need to think about adequate social protection, as a form of global public goods. Girls out of school this year have talked of poverty, hunger, gender based violence, unwanted pregnancy, early marriage and lack of access to technology. Lack of universal social protection policies mean that ending  school feeding during school closures put the health of all children at risk. After the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone researchers noted increased teenage pregnancies and that families, desperate to reduce the numbers of mouths to feed, married off teenage girls. Focus on one health emergency diverted attention from other areas, such as improving  access to contraception, maternal health care and social investments. Poverty limits women’s access to computers, mobile phones and airtime. .  Paromita   Sen of SEWA (Self Employed Woemn’s Association)   noted at a recent Overseas Development Institute conference, that the economic crisis in India resulted in poor households selling women’s assets first. Thousands of poor women sold their mobile phones, which resulted in limiting access to education material circulated to their children. The booming EdTech business has not cut dividends to give one phone to each family to serve education.

All these areas of Covid-19’s impact on girls’ education have nothing to do with what girls may wish for their own learning, or their opportunities. If we want to overcome this suffering, we must attend carefully to what girls say. The pandemic cannot be understood outside the interconnections of gender inequality, racialization, ethnicization, class formation, or geopolitics. To address the impact of Covid-19 on girls’ access to school we must not separate engagement with education from investments in health, social protection or concern with inequalities. It is not so much a question of what if, but when we can join up processes for change. We have to stop thinking what poor girls can do for us, but what joined up social policy can do for them, and us all.

Elaine Unterhalter is a professor of education and international development at the UCL Institute of Education.

Opinions expressed on the CEID Blog are only those of the author, not the Centre for Education and International Development or the UCL Institute of Education.

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One Response to “Education in the Time of COVID-19 #045 – Unterhalter”

  • 1
    SUSAN DURSTON wrote on 10 February 2021:

    Well documented, Elaine, and what might transpire in policy has to be translated into practice. That is the step often left undone and measured by budget allocations rather than results on the ground. In the 1980s, while working in Uganda, I addressed a meeting of district medical officers challenging them to have as one of their strategies, girls being educated. They received it with horror and mild amusement. But it was an awakening to what I was subsequently to experience-the dominance of and limitations to a health sector myopia within organisations when considering health issues. Of course, we all know that COVID-has wider implications than health, but how to organise when ministries are distinct and whoever has the funds calls the tune?
    More of the complexities and variations are reported in the recent CGD publication “Who is going back to school? A Four-Country Rapid Survey in Ethiopia, India, Nigeria, and Pakistan”, which broadly agrees with your thesis.

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