Great Britain

Coronavirus threatens to turn back the clock on women's rights by decades

As we look to learn lessons about the coronavirus from previous health emergencies, like the Ebola outbreak, it is clear that humanitarian crises affect girls and young women the hardest.

Issues like harassment, gender-based violence and access to education disproportionately impact girls during times of crisis. Yet what’s often overlooked is the consequences that these issues can have on girls’ mental health. Sadly, we know this is no different for girls in the UK.

We already know that when girls feel they do not have equal rights and opportunities, it directly affects their wellbeing. Our research into the impact of coronavirus on girls in the UK has found that their mental health issues have been further exacerbated by the pandemic. In fact, 40 per cent of young women aged 14-21 say their mental health has deteriorated since lockdown.

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One of the challenges is social media. Online spaces can be hugely beneficial, even more so during isolation, as it’s here girls can connect with friends, continue their schoolwork and feel part of the wider world. Yet social media is both a blessing and a curse; as girls spend more time online, they are targeted there, too. During the lockdown period alone, one in four girls (25 per cent) have experienced at least one form of abuse, bullying or sexual harassment online. Furthermore, worrying about body image and increased pressure online to be productive, positive and maintain a certain image pose an enormous risk to girls’ mental health and wellbeing.

Sadly, one in 10 girls have not sought support for their mental health, even when they think they have needed it. We encourage girls who want a digital space to discuss their concerns with peers to join our Girls Shout Out community on Instagram or Facebook. But we need to see more safe spaces like this for girls who can no longer attend youth clubs, participate in sports teams or access support easily.

Girls are subjected to harassment in every space they occupy, and we’re starting to see wider recognition that this is not OK. We’ve seen street harassment acknowledged as a form of gender-based violence by the government, and amazing young campaigners like Maya and Gemma Tutton of Our Streets Now sharing their stories.

Yet our report found that a staggering one in five girls have experienced street harassment during the lockdown period, and over one quarter say they feel less safe outside. For one third, harassment or fear of harassment has been so bad that it has stopped them leaving the house.

Getting out to exercise, to shop for essential goods or – as we ease out of lockdown – to meet a friend, is vital for our physical and mental health. But girls don’t feel safe doing this when they are more likely to be outside alone, the streets are emptier and there are fewer places to seek help. Girls have told us that street harassment makes them feel ashamed, angry and afraid, yet one quarter of girls (26 per cent) who have experienced harassment during lockdown did not tell anyone about the incident, meaning they are suffering with these feelings in silence. Girls need to feel able to tell a trusted adult about their fears and experiences and be confident they will be taken seriously. Boys and young men can also play a major role in generating change by being supported to call out harassment when they see it.

Period poverty is another challenge for girls right now. We have made incredible progress in the UK in recent years, including the government providing free period products in schools and public places. But now this new scheme is under threat before it’s truly got off the ground, as the places offering free products to those who can’t afford them are closed. And the education on periods that young people should be getting at school through sex education classes may not happen this year.

Our new report found that a staggering three in ten girls have struggled to afford or access period products during lockdown. And for over one in ten girls, worries about leaking have stopped them leaving the house. We must urgently find a way to get period products to those who need them, and to ensure young people understand what is happening to their bodies when they have their period so we can end the shame and stigma once and for all.

And as we head into a recession, the future remains uncertain for a cohort of young women who have not finished their education. The majority (66 per cent) say they are learning less during lockdown compared to when they were in school. Many young women finishing school or university may be unable to find jobs or look for work during lockdown, and it’s crucial we make sure they are not held back further by this crisis. Companies must remain committed to closing the gender pay gap and employing a diverse workforce.

Ignoring the specific ways in which this crisis is impacting girls’ and young women’s wellbeing could push their rights back by decades. We can’t let that happen. We need to acknowledge the very real challenges UK girls are facing in this global crisis.

Rose Caldwell is the CEO of Plan International UK, a global children’s charity that works to advance children’s rights and achieve equality for girls. For more information on Plan International UK’s work with girls in the UK, visit www.plan-uk.org/girlsrights2020

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