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Rebuilding a ‘new normal’ for girls’ education amid COVID-19

26/05/2020

An intergenerational dialogue between young women activists and the CEO of Plan International was held to discuss the vision for a ‘new normal’ for girls’ education. Organized by the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI) - partner of the Gender Flagship, this is part of a series of dialogues facilitating the inclusion of youth voices in COVID-19 educational responses.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced most governments around the world to temporarily close educational institutions to contain the spread of the virus. At the peak of the pandemic, more than 1.5 billion learners, or over 90% of the world’s student population from pre-primary to higher education, have seen their education disrupted and at times interrupted.

Digital solutions vs. reality

“There’s an assumption that everybody can just move online,” said Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen, CEO of Plan International.

While all eyes turned to digital technologies to provide learning continuity, the existing digital gender divide was made increasingly clear, and risking to further marginalize girls. We know from data and experience that millions of girls around the world are not online and therefore may not have access to the learning which is taking place in the digital space.

“How do we expect girls who are trying to survive to afford expensive data to get online,”, said Maryjacob from Activista Nigeria. ‘The world has gone digital and those girls are being excluded.”

“Even if a home is connected, girls can’t even use the internet. Why? Because they are busy doing chores while their brothers are using the internet,” said Maryjacob.

To respond to these challenges, youth-led networks are working around issues of connectivity. They have taken to low-tech approaches such as community radio learning programmes to reach girls everywhere. Youth activists are also supporting those girls who are online through digital literacy to help them navigate, use and report abuse via social media applications.

Listening to girls

As the world progressively reopens its schools, it may need to pause and listen. “We are planning to get girls back to school but nobody will actually have listened to girls and heard about their needs, experience and trauma,” said Albrectsen.

Listening to girls about their experience during the pandemic can help ensure their issues and needs are being addressed as part of actions to bring girls back to school after COVID-19.

Young activists highlighted measures such as scholarships and grants, provision of stationary and other incentives that can promote girls’ education and return to school. “Most families will have lost their means of livelihood during the pandemic.” said Tolani from VSO Nigeria. “Scholarships can encourage parents to send girls back to school.”

Maintaining appropriate menstrual hygiene in schools including water in the toilets, sanitary pads and painkillers and a space to rest can also boost girls’ return and retention. Young activists also called for policies that guide the process of girls’ return to school, especially in contexts where these stand in the way of pregnant girls getting an education.

A focus on schools as safe spaces for learning was also highlighted by Faith from Girls’ Advocacy Alliance, Liberia. “Our attention should be driven to issues of awareness and engaging girls and stakeholders alike to ensure girls are safe for advancement now and beyond this pandemic,” she said.

A crisis and an opportunity

Experience shows that crises often disproportionately affect girls and young women, exacerbating gender-based violence, exploitation, early marriage and unintended pregnancy. This is especially the case as girls are out of school.

“So many girls may come back pregnant,” said Maryjacob. “And in some societies, pregnant girls are not allowed back in schools. This is the time for governments to instill policies that allow girls to have free and equal access to education, regardless of their situation.”

Programmes and responses being developed need to “involve youth in the decision-making process but also parents’, said Beatrice from Plan International Kenya. ‘It is also an opportunity to test gender-based violence reporting and referral systems.”

Now is also the time to tackle gender bias and harmful stereotypes embedded into textbooks and teaching materials. Governments are currently reviewing and creating new learning content for radio, television and digital use. “There has never been a better opportunity when we are changing,” said Albrectsen.  

What is your new normal?

Under the work of UNESCO’s Global Education Coalition, the Gender Flagship seeks to leverage this period to foster a ‘new normal’ where gender equality and inclusion are central to education systems.

When asked what their vision is for a ‘new normal’ in education, the young women activists taking part in the dialogue were eager to respond.

“A world where a girl is not just a community member but a decision maker in the community,”, said Beatrice. But also, “a world where girls go to school, are well educated, and in which all girls have access to the latest technologies and can use as well as much as boys can,” said Tolani from VSO Nigeria. And ‘a world where girls are safe to learn free from violence’, said Pooja from Plan International Nepal.

As Albrectsen noted, “the new normal must be the one where the needs of Beatrice, Maryjacob, Tolani, Pooja, Faith, Maryam and Nivaal becomes reality.”  These activists and the youth-led and youth-serving organizations they work for are critical partners in the education response.

A set of recommendations inspired by this dialogue will be made available soon.

Under UNESCO’s Global Education Coalition, the Gender Flagship provides a collaborative platform for stakeholders committed to gender equality, and girls’ and women’s empowerment in and through education. An integral area of action of the Gender Flagship is youth participation and the meaningful inclusion of youth voices into COVID-19 education response plans. Interested in supporting this work? Contact the Gender Flagship at Gender.ed@unesco.org

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