OF all the non-fiction stories I’ve read on the impact of coronavirus pandemic, especially with the continued closure of schools, the most heartbreaking for me is that of Anna, – a 17-year-old school girl who believed the world was hers for the taking. It didn’t matter that she lived in a tiny shack with her mother, who single-handedly raised three children by washing clothes for others. With strong grades in English, the determined teen aspired to finish her education and become a television presenter. She would buy a house for her mother and support her sister and baby brother through school. Now, four months pregnant, Anna is faced with an uncertain future. “When my school closed because of the virus, I was at home doing nothing so I started going around with a man who was a friend and we had sex,” said Anna, whose named has been changed to protect her identity. “I missed my period and realised I was pregnant. Now I sit here all day thinking about how frustrated I am with my life. I feel like I have destroyed my future.” she said.
While the focus of Covid-19 response has mainly been on our health systems, the pandemic is already having a devastating impact on school children beyond the issue of health, and we can be sure that women and girls are the worst hit and are paying the higher price in this regard. For one, over 1.5 billion children are out of school due to disruption caused by the global Covid-19 pandemic. A novel virus that keeps us confined to the homes for months, no doubts would reshape the society in lasting ways. From how we travel, to the level of surveillance and security we are used to, and even how we socialize and relate to other people. And with the continued school closures, there’s a risk of falling behind for some; but for many women and girls across the world, it could mean watching their futures disappear or taking a really bleak turn.
It’s easy to say, what’s the issue here? – these girls are at home anyway and home is supposed to be a safe place. A place of succour. But for millions of children, that’s sadly not the case. From rape and sexual exploitation to female genital mutilation (FGM), child marriage and early pregnancy, Covid-19 has unleashed a myriad of consequences on girls across Africa. School closures particularly have left girls open to sexual violence from family, neighbours and community members; lockdown poverty has forced minors into transactional sex to buy basics; uncertain when schools will resume, umpteen examples abound of how desperate families have resorted to marrying off under-age daughters to ease expenses – with some girls undergoing FGM as part of traditional customs.
That countries are reporting spikes in teen pregnancies and early marriages raises fears that many girls may end up never returning to school – thus jeopardising decades of work to reverse deep-rooted gender inequalities. More so, previous experiences have shown that the longer children are out of school, the less likely they are to return. For instance, keeping pupils in school under Ebola was not an option for a long period of time. Some parents took their children out of school even before they closed and held them back after they reopened, which was also the case in DRC following a later Ebola outbreak there. The major bulk of the “dropouts” seem to have been girls, although it is difficult to trace the actual figures. The main reasons were economic issues such as inability to pay school fees or the need to generate incomes.
Even before Covid-19 closed schools around the world, tens of millions of girls already faced pressure to drop out of school to care for siblings, do unpaid domestic work, contribute financially to their households, or marry and have children. Out-of-school girls are also at an increased risk of sexual exploitation—adolescent girls living in poverty encounter pressures to engage in intercourse with sexual partners who can provide financial or in-kind support. Approximately 13 million adolescent girls in low- and middle-income countries become pregnant before the age of 20 and face additional health risks: higher rates of eclampsia, puerperal endometritis, and systemic infections.
Clearly, the pandemic has exacerbated inequalities and challenges that already exist for girls in Nigeria and all over Africa. During these unprecedented times, it’s imperative that policymakers incorporate a gender analysis into the development of covid-19 policies and as the pandemic unfolds, there is urgent need for sex-disaggregated data to fully understand how women and men are affected by the virus. Understanding the impact of lockdowns on women and girls could lead to the development and implementation of other effective policy measures. Learnkng from the Ebola experiences, it has been suggested that keeping the schools opened, and instead implementing policies to limit the spread of covid-19, such as smaller groups and more stringent hygienic measures would have been more beneficial. Similarly, assessing the gendered aspects of minimising disruptions and maintaining supply chains for essential items is likely to lead to better outcomes for all.
In the final analysis, the long-term impact of extending the school shutdown risks ever greater harm to children, their future and their communities. Government as well as appropriate authorities need to as a matter of urgency promote the safe reopening of schools, while taking measures to limit the spread of the virus – even as cases continue to climb. There has to be a recognition that some of the gains made in terms of delivering for girls and their rights have been eroded, and if it is not deliberately addressed in a concerted manner, they will not be fit for purpose in a post-covid world.
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