An estimated 214 million children globally – or 1 in 7 – have missed more than three-quarters of their in-person learning over the past year. This is the biggest education crisis the world has ever faced. And the challenge is particularly acute for girls who have been facing a learning crisis for a lot longer.
Even before the pandemic struck, nearly 1 in 5 girls aged 15-19 globally were not in education, employment or training, compared with 1 in 10 boys. Many millions more are not developing the transferable, digital, entrepreneurial, and job-specific skills they need to realize their potential. An estimated 9 million girls of primary school age will never have the opportunity to learn to read and write in primary school.
The education crisis is a gender crisis. And the pandemic will compound existing gender inequalities. Worryingly – but predictably – a disproportionate number of girls will simply not return to education. School closures could drive 20 million more secondary school-aged girls out of school after the crisis has passed. Crises, such as COVID-19, heighten and compound existing restrictive gender norms that constrain girls’ school attendance: risk of child marriage, early pregnancy, gender-based violence, female genital mutilation, sexual exploitation and child labour. An estimated 13 million girls aged 15–19 years have experienced forced sex in their lifetimes. These risks are rooted in restrictive gender norms that define women’s and girls’ places in society. Girls between 5 and 14 years old spend 40% more time – 160 million more hours a day – on unpaid household chores and care work than boys their age, compromising their education.
“I had classmates who dropped out of school due to early marriage,. I know how much they loved to continue their education and reach their full potential, but they could not.” – Somaya, 17, Afghanistan.
Accelerating gender-responsive efforts in education is paramount, but at the current pace of change, it will take 99.5 years to achieve gender parity across work, education, health and politics worldwide. Something has got to give. This is a moment of innovation and change. The way digital technology has been adapted to maximize learning over the past year has opened the door for alternative learning modalities that offer no excuses for educating the most marginalized children – especially girls.
Girls’ education is one of the smartest investments
The economic imperative is undeniable. If every girl in the world finished 12 years of quality education, lifetime earnings for women could increase by $15 trillion to $30 trillion. We know that investments in education for all – girls and boys, women and men – yield higher GDP per capita. The lesson is simple: if countries want to grow economically, they need more education equality and more women in the workforce, including in leadership positions.
It’s not rocket science (although, we would like to boost girls’ participation in STEM subjects so they could explore rocket science if they wanted to!), but it does require action at all levels. Many countries already have cultural mores and institutional structures in place to advance gender equality in and through education – and they are enjoying the dividends. All countries now need to come up to this standard, or we risk exacerbating the gap between rich and poor countries – and perpetuating this gendered learning crisis.
Building back better from COVID-19 means leveraging the school reopening process to address long-standing disparities and barriers. It means using the evidence of positive social and economic growth to provide bold and transformative political leadership for girls’ education, backed by adequate and sustainable investments in education overall. The G7 Declaration on Girls’ Education is a terrific start.
We need to invest in dynamic education systems and learning opportunities that provide all girls with access to quality alternative and flexible learning programmes thatteach at the right level.Education must meet the girl – through digital connectivity and access to alternative learning models – so that they can develop knowledge and skills and become equipped to transition to further education and work. In Zimbabwe, UNICEF is collaborating with Microsoft on the Learning Passport, an innovative global platform that provides flexible online and offline gender-responsive content in multiple languages.
In the same vein, we need to apply a girl-centred approach to programmes. This includescontinuing to find ways for girls to take the lead in their own learning and development. UNICEF’s GirlTech initiative in Thailand and Indonesia led to girls themselves designing the ‘Oky’ app, which is crafted to empower girls with menstruation education in fun, creative and positive ways.
We need to generate consistent gender analyses and information, to inform policy and planning so that the needs of girls and women are prioritized – and to hold governments and organizations to account. This means including mandatory sex and age disaggregation in programme monitoring and reporting. For example, UNICEF, CARE and UN Women worked on a gender data and analysis report on the impact of COVID-19 in the Mekong Subregion, which focussed uncompromisingly on how the crisis affected women, men, boys and girls differently.
We need to prioritize protection for girls so that they can access violence-free learning. For example, UNICEF has been supporting virtual safe spaces for adolescent girls in Iraq and Lebanon to have online access to sexual and reproductive health information, links to services, skill-building, peer connection, and information about gender-based violence. This space facilitates access to information and services in a safe, culturally appropriate and accessible way – and allows survivors of violence to access services privately.
We need to foster and fortify partnerships with girls’ and women’s organizations. This is critical for girls to have solid peer support and role models and mentors both at school and as they transition to further education and the workplace. For example, UNICEF supports the Girls in Science programme in Kyrgyzstan, which provides professional training, internships and female professional mentors for adolescent girls from peri-urban and rural communities, equipping them to pursue STEM careers.
Finally, we need to ensure international commitments hold. The economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic must not prevent girls from realizing their right to education. International and domestic financing for girls to go to school, stay in school, and learn must be safeguarded. This education emergency is a global crisis. For the sake of all girls, we cannot afford to let it continue. Unrealized potential is at stake. This week, the Generation Equality Forum convened by UN Women and co-hosted by the governments of France and Mexico recommitted to accelerate achieving gender equality for all by 2030. Girls’ education is at the core of gender equality. UNICEF, a co-lead for the Technology and Innovation Action Coalitions, is committing to:
The unprecedented impact of the COVID-19 pandemic presents the world with a unique window of opportunity to revolutionize education systems and reimagine education for girls. What are we waiting for?